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Oak Brook photo exhibition chronicles life of Princess Diana

“Princess Diana Exhibition: Accredited Access” at Oakbrook Center shows an intimate side of the Princess of Wales through the lens of Anwar Hussein, her lifelong photographer and a close confidant.

Diana, Princess of Wales — riding in the glass coach used on her wedding day 10 years years earlier — heads to the state Opening of Parliament in November 1981 in London, England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein)
Diana, Princess of Wales — riding in the glass coach used on her wedding day earlier that year — heads to the state Opening of Parliament in November 1981 in London.
Anwar Hussein

There’s a passage in the recent movie “Spencer” about a pivotal weekend in the life of Princess Diana when the beloved royal (played by actress Kristen Stewart) ponders what the world might write about her in the future. It’s a stunningly simple moment that sits with viewers who, from the future, know how her cherished legacy plays out — a legacy that’s getting renewed attention in what would have been the year of her 60th birthday.

Diana, Princess of Wales, and her sons Prince William and Prince Harry, sit on the steps of Marivent Palace with members of the Spanish Royal family on August 10, 1987 in Palma, Majorca. (Photo by Anwar Hussein)
Diana, Princess of Wales, and her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, sit on the steps of Marivent Palace with members of the Spanish royal family on August 10, 1987, in Palma, Majorca.
Anwar Hussein

In addition to the film (already generating Oscar buzz), there’s a docuseries on CNN, a Broadway musical and the Netflix drama series “The Crown,” whose most recent season details Diana’s entrance into the British royal family. Yet, those really wanting a more up-close-and-personal glimpse into the life of the People’s Princess will want to visit a new exhibition making its official debut in Oak Brook this month.

“Princess Diana Exhibition: Accredited Access” opens Dec. 2 at Oakbrook Center and paints an intimate portrait of the Princess of Wales through the lens of Anwar Hussein, her lifelong photographer and a close confidant.

Though Hussein’s images have been seen countless times worldwide — including the iconic photographs from her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981 and her meeting with Mother Teresa in 1997 shortly before both passed away — this one-of-a-kind exhibition will, for the first time pair Hussein’s narration with the images.

Throughout the exhibition, he shares the stories behind public and private moments in her life, from dating Prince Charles to their wedding day, the honeymoon and her travels around the world after they went their separate ways.

Diana Princess of Wales in front of Uluru/Ayers Rock near Alice Springs, Australia during the Royal Tour of Australia, 21st March 1983.(Photo by Anwar Hussein)
Diana, Princess of Wales, is photographed in front of Uluru/Ayers Rock near Alice Springs, Australia, during the royal tour of Australia, on March 21, 1983.
Anwar Hussein

“I spent more time with Diana than my own family,” Hussein says in a recent interview. As of 2016, he has had the distinct honor of being the longest-running photographer covering the royals, including Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, many of his images have been used on the family’s official Christmas cards over the years.

“When [Diana] came on the scene, from the very beginning, we got along very well … and had lots of banter.”

Though Hussein is reluctant to share too many details of the stories inside the exhibit, he does reveal that Diana once told him she learned more about Prince Charles from the book Hussein published in 1978 (“HRH Prince Charles”) than she ever did from her husband himself.

Born in Tanzania, Hussein began his freelance career capturing images of wild animals and refugees fleeing the Belgian Congo before finding his way to the U.K., where he shot rock legends in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Elton John, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and The Sex Pistols as well as stills of James Bond movies and actors, including Steve McQueen.

His decades as the Official Royal Photographer have been perhaps the most telling, he says.

“I used to cover royal stories for newspapers,” he recalls of how he got started. “At that time, I had long hair, I looked more like a hippie. … And when I met up with royal photographers, they said … you can never be a royal photographer; the Royals would not allow you to come anywhere near them. So it was a challenge. And I was ready for a change.”

Hussein’s style was set early on and was very much aligned with what would become the ethos of Princess Diana — to remove the conventions.

“I wanted to break the formality that surrounds the royal family – I wanted to photograph them the way I see them,” Hussein says. “I wanted to establish and record history in a different way … where I made them look more like humans than princes and kings and queens.”

It’s a style his sons, Zak and Samir, have adhered to, continuing in their father’s footsteps by documenting Princes William and Harry along with their families. Their work will also be on display in the “Accredited Access” exhibition along with murals and stunning paper sculptures by Pauline Loctin.

The way it’s set up — with eight themed sections, showcasing Diana as a mother as well as her influence on fashion and her legacy of humanitarianism, among others — is being called the first-ever “walk-thru documentary” and is something creative director and curator Cliff Skelliter came up with after watching the famed Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls docuseries “The Last Dance.”

Royal family photographers/chroniclers Sam (from left), Anwar and Zak Anwar Hussein.
Royal family photographers/chroniclers Sam (from left), Anwar and Zak Anwar Hussein.
Courtesy of Anwar Hussein

“Everybody loved the feeling of being an insider [with that series] and getting a behind-the-curtains look,” Skelliter says.

His Ontario-based company, Launchpad Creative, was originally brought in to do the branding for the event before he started developing the greater narrative by working on the script for the exhibit along with Chicago-based writer Karen Liu to tie together the Husseins’ images.

For Skelliter, who grew up in the ‘80s, he found a whole new appreciation for Diana through this experience, saying, “This woman was so wonderful. The pressures she had to not participate in life the way she did, but did anyway, shows me an integrity we don’t often get to see in human beings. And as you learn her story in this exhibit you realize this is a very special person who, for me, makes me want to operate in the world in a better way. It’s so inspiring.”