Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Obituary: John Harrison MBE: A popular photographer, trusted by politicians

John Harrison and wife Mandy after receiving MBE
John Harrison, 50, one of Northern Ireland's leading Press and PR photographers who died suddenly at his home.
One of John Harrison's photographs. Hollywood star Liam Neeson with his mother Kitty

John Harrison MBE, one of Northern Ireland’s leading photographers, has died at his home in Lisburn, Co Antrim. He was 50.

John started his career in the darkroom of the Ballymena Guardian and, under the guidance of his mentor Maurice O'Neill, he moved on to taking photographs for the paper.

He quickly established himself as an extremely competent operator and was snapped up by the Pacemaker Press picture agency in Belfast, where he spent many years covering hard news stories at the height of the Troubles.

John later left Pacemaker to pursue his ambition to form his own PR picture agency — Harrisons — and was immediately successful.

John's genial and engaging way with people from all walks of life, mixed with his undoubted photographic ability and discretion, led to his involvement with the Northern Ireland Office as their photographer of choice when they need pictures to record for posterity major meetings and discussions between Northern Ireland political figures, top political players and heads of state from around the world.

His results were always guaranteed technically, but it was his ability to lighten tense moments and put subjects at their ease that saw him heading off to the Oval Office in Washington many times over the tenure of three successive Presidents — Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama.

John was privy to many of the secrets of the behind-the-scenes relationships between politicians because they trusted him.

He would regularly travel in Secretary of State Mo Mowlam's official car on the way to engagements because she loved the craic that John always brought to the table.

John was a staunch member of the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association and was chairman of NIPPA when the critically acclaimed Out of the Darkness exhibition was put on show in Washington.

It formed part of the opening of the Rediscover Northern Ireland series of events then being held in Washington to promote the move from conflict towards normality here.

The powers-that-be initially wanted the exhibition to be fairly benign and steer away from the Troubles aspects of Northern Ireland's history.

But John knew how the internal mechanics of the US government worked and he knew whom to talk to to make things happen. John insisted that the exhibition embrace the past honestly, warts and all, and that side of the province was balanced by a selection of stunning pictures from local photographers showing the benefits of the peace process.

John argued, in a speech to the Washington Press Club, that Northern Ireland's peace process was a work-in-progress and that the province needed continued support and investment from the US.

It was a long way for a boy from Ballymena to be in a position to influence ambassadors, Congressmen and Senators, but that was John. It was no surprise to read the number of moving and heartfelt tributes that poured for him.

John was a great personal friend. I've known him since he came to work in Belfast more than 25 years ago. But great though my personal sorrow is, I know that his lovely wife, Mandy, and their three children, Peter, Thomas and Catherine, will be heartbroken that such a great and gentle man has been so unexpectedly taken from them.

ALAN LEWIS

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