Denis Thorpe's best photograph: a brave boy's vaccination

I was five when diphtheria visited us in Mansfield. I remember lying on a sofa sweating as a doctor swabbed the back of my throat, my parents’ anxious faces looking down at me. There had been thousands of deaths from the disease – this was before a vaccination, before the NHS.

I was taken to the local isolation hospital. My parents had no phone: a friend of theirs would cycle up to the hospital gates and read the daily bulletin board, which gave the condition of patients. Eventually, my parents were allowed to come into the hospital grounds and I was taken to a window on the second-floor ward to wave to them. I was lucky and recovered, and was able to come home just before my sixth birthday. Years later, I came across the letter my parents were sent by the hospital when I was discharged: “The child should sleep in a room not occupied by other children … the towels, cups, spoons, forks used by the patient should be kept separate and distinct from those used by other members of the family for a week at least and then boiled before use by anyone else … they should not visit other houses or entertain friends for two weeks following discharge … they should not attend any school for a period of two weeks.”

In 1954, returning from national service with the RAF, I went back to journalism and decided to do a photo essay about diphtheria immunisation. A national programme introduced in the 1940s had almost eradicated the disease. I went with the medical officer for Mansfield and his deputy to schools where young children were being immunised. The children lined up and waited with great trepidation. After the injection, they were given chocolate buttons. I photographed quite a few of them, but this boy’s brave, stoic expression took me back to my own childhood and made me weep. Sadly, I never knew his name. Later, we called at the hospital where I had been isolated. The ward and beds were empty. A graph still pinned to the wall showed peaks and lows until they fell to zero. It was a poignant reminder of very trying times. I called the essay The Death of Diphtheria. I sent it to Picture Post magazine but they didn’t publish it. The photo only became widely known decades later when it was used as the key image in an exhibition at the Guardian celebrating 50 years of my photography.

I joined the Guardian in 1974 and worked at the paper for 22 years. I covered everything: news, politics, sport, features and the arts in the UK and beyond. I worked mostly in monochrome – most national papers weren’t able to print effectively in colour until the late 1990s. I loved the craft of producing the perfect print in the darkroom, racing to meet the deadline.

I particularly enjoyed photographing actors and artists. I remember meeting Henry Moore – who was wonderful, but I’m sorry not to have photographed another Yorkshire artist: David Hockney. I was friendly with LS Lowry and made a photographic record of his home, paintings and treasures just after he died. Denis Healy was one of my favourite politicians to shoot – he was always keen to talk photography.

Another highlight is photographing Louis Armstrong. It was 1956 and he was performing in Birmingham and was happy to let me hang around all day. I love traditional jazz – I was introduced to it during my RAF service. I used to visit what was then called the London Jazz Club, at 100 Oxford Street, to listen to Humphrey Lyttelton’s band. In 1980, I was in the US covering the presidential primaries and I heard that Ronald Reagan was going to New Orleans. I asked the office if I could go along. I got to photograph musicians at world-famous venues like Preservation Hall – it was fantastic! I did manage to get some shots of Reagan for the paper, too.

These last few months I’ve hardly been further than my front gate, so I’ve turned my lens on to the birds in my garden. I’ve been watching them as carefully as I did when photographing people. The goldfinches particularly intrigue me. They perch for a moment and then they’re gone in a blink. I’ve spent hours and days admiring and studying them from afar. I sit quietly on an old bench and try to merge into the background.

This current situation is miserable and difficult for so many people. We will get through this, but I do feel a need to be cautious. It’s going to take longer than people think. I will be photographing my feathered friends for a while longer.

Thorpe in 1954, around the time he created his diphtheria picture essay.
Thorpe in 1954, around the time he created his diphtheria picture essay. Photograph: Denis Thorpe/The Guardian

Denis Thorpe’s CV

Born: Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, 1932.
Trained: Self-taught by studying Picture Post and Life magazine.
Influences: Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt, André Kertész, W Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the early Magnum photographers.
High point: Being asked to join the Guardian.
Low point: Being without a camera.
Top tip: Stay with your first instincts and don’t allow anyone to distract you.

Denis Thorpe’s book A View from the North is published by Bluecoat Press.


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