In a navy dress with long sleeves, princess diana sits on a chair, looking just as elegant as ever. His right arm is extended, shaking hands with a young man. He was photographed from behind, so other than the edge of his glasses and his jawline, he is anonymous.
This photo, taken by a longtime royal photographer Anouar Hussein, changed the world. This is because the anonymous young man was Ivan Cohen, the only AIDS patient residing in the medical service visited by Diana who agreed to be photographed with her – and only from behind. It was 1987, and ignorance and fanaticism against people living with HIV/AIDS permeated the general public. According to Cohen himself, the Princess of Wales publicly holding hands with an AIDS patient helped change public perception of the disease.
The photo is on display alongside 144 other photographs in a new exhibit that opened at Tysons Corner Center on June 8. Princess Diana: Exhibition with Accredited Access takes a look at Diana’s life as a royal, seen through the eyes of Hussein. Her work, including never-before-seen photographs of the princess, is featured alongside photos taken by her sons samir and zackwho both work as royal photographers today.
The exhibit, which toured Los Angeles and Chicago earlier this year, comes 25 years after Diana died in a car accident in Paris on August 31, 1997, in what looks like an influx of Lady Di—Sandi Rankaduwa called it a “Dianaissance” in an essay for BuzzFeed News. Diana was the subject of The crown‘s fourth season, and will reappear in its fifth, which is slated for release in November. Kristen Stewart portrayed her in last year’s fantasy psychological drama spencer, and it even got the Broadway musical treatment, which was ripped by critics. Expository Comissioner Skelliter Cliff attributes this renewed interest to Diana’s relativity, which earned her the unofficial title of People’s Princess.
“She transcends time,” Skelliter says. “Even with the passage of time, I think she still occupies, in our minds, that beautiful position of being someone who was a very relatable person in a very incomprehensible situation.”
The exhibition magnifies this unrelated situation, literally. As you pass through the rooms, which are divided into different themes (Skelliter calls them “episodes” and says his pandemic television crises inspired the exhibition’s design), an audio guide narrated by Samir and Zak goes with you. Small anecdotes from the Hussein family contextualize each photo in the exhibit, many of which are inflated up to 5 feet by 8 feet. The photos on display cover Diana’s iconic ‘revenge dress’, her famous solo shot at the Taj Mahal, as well as lesser-known ones. One of my favorites shows Diana rushing across a grass field, shoeless, racing against other women in a “mothers race” hosted by Prince Harryschool. (She won, of course.)
Princess Diana: Exhibition with Accredited Access bills itself as the “world’s first ever walk-through documentary”, due to its combination of episode-like themes, enlarged photos, and audio guides. But it’s really no different from the kind of historical photo exhibits that museums like the National Geographic Museum specialize in. It’s also called immersive – CNN named it one of the 12 best immersive experiences around the world – although there are no screenings or interactive activities that have become hallmarks of the genre. (In addition to the photographs, there are impressive paper sculptures by the multimedia artist Pauline Loctin inspired by royal fashion.) It imitates the tradition of the “immersive experience” the most in its gift shop, where you are encouraged to take a photo for Instagram on a red carpet and buy t-shirts, bottles water jugs, candles, beanies and compact mirrors, all branded with the show’s crown logo.
The “passing documentary” branding is perhaps most out of place because of all that is not in the exhibition. The stories told by the Hussains focus on Diana’s public life, including her daring fashion choices and her humanitarian work. Anything less pleasant to talk about is missing from the show. Prince Charles is almost invisible as a figure in Diana’s life, and her infamous infidelity is only mentioned once, during the audio in the revenge dress photo. Camille Parker Bowles, the woman Charles cheated with and is now married to, is never mentioned by name. Diana’s incompatibilities with royal life are presented as part of a brazen rebellious streak, rather than factors in her serious mental health issues, which they were.
I ask Skelliter about it after visiting the exhibition. He immediately started nodding his head. “LA, Chicago, Toronto, all the press out there – nobody asked me that question. And I actually thought it was really interesting that nobody had asked that question yet, because I think that’s a good question.
Turns out we both voraciously listened to and learned of Diana’s existence via the popular history podcast. You are wrong about.
“After listening You are wrong about, you have no idea the internal struggle I had not to go in, like, 50 million directions,” Skelliter says. “But it’s over there. People can go and listen to them… I think for Anwar to tell these stories, he’s not the right guy. We really wanted to stick to the things he had experienced and did our best to avoid speculating too much.
Fair enough. But there is one aspect of Diana’s story, and the story of any king in recent history, that would fit perfectly into an exhibition on royal photography: the role that photography, in especially the paparazzi, has in the daily life of a modern person. Royal. The car accident that killed Diana happened while she was escaping paparazzi. Skelliter put me in touch with Samir Hussein, who I got to zoom in on while he was between filming the Platinum Jubilee and Royal Ascot. I asked him about the dark side of constant photography.
“You have to make a decision, if you’re going to be a serious royal photographer, or if you’re going to do the paparazzi thing,” Hussein said. “I’ve never been interested in the paparazzi side, because I want to have a relationship with who I photograph… These are historic events, and these are images that will hopefully be seen for decades, if not in the next century.”
A photo of Samir, which is displayed at the end of the exhibition, is a particularly good candidate for having this kind of legacy. It’s a picture of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, gazing romantically at herself under an umbrella, raindrops lit up all around them. Samir described the photo, which looks like a still from a movie, as “one in a million”. It made tabloid and magazine covers and went viral online.
The pressure to take this picture was high – it was one of Harry and Markle’s last public appearances as senior royals. About a month earlier, they had announced that they were stepping down from their leadership roles. Among other things, they said they wanted “space” for their family.
The symmetry between Diana and the royal generation that succeeded her is a guiding principle of Princess Diana: Exhibition with Accredited Access, says Skelliter. In Harry and Markle’s highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey– in which they spoke candidly about the lack of support, as well as the blatant racism, their family received from the monarchy – the prince also made this comparison.
Princess Diana: Exhibition with Accredited Access is on display all summer at Tysons Corner Center, 1961 Chain Bridge Rd., Tysons. princessdianaexhibit.com. $25.