It’s Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday (well it was this week…), so I thought I’d post a pic and story about my day with Ali.
I was on staff at Tearfund, who were heavily involved in the launch of Jubilee 2000 (now the Jubilee Debt Campaign), the campaign to cancel unpayable debt in developing countries at the turn of the Millennium. We were offering as much support as we could, and I was able to photograph a number of their events – including Muhammad Ali’s February 1999 visit to London as an ambassador for Jubilee 2000.
It was one of those extraordinary days that live with you for ever. We started with a photo call in the park by the Palace of Westminster – Ali holding hands with children from around the world, with banners asking for freedom from the chains of debt. As he bent down to be at the same level as the children, he rocked over onto his back – his Parkinson’s was already well developed, and although he still moved with echoes of grace, his balance wasn’t what it had been. Immediately the photographer from one of the Red Tops held his camera up, calling ‘not shooting’, and we all pointed our cameras skywards – a profound moment of respect for and solidarity with Ali. There were no camera phones, nobody live streaming anything – and shortly Ali was back on his feet, and we got the pictures we needed.
I had all-areas access, as the official Jubilee 2000 photographer, and followed the entourage inside a private event in Brixton (much to other photographer’s irritation). I sat in the front row of a tiny crowded room as Ali entered – a totally electrifying moment, the room on it’s collective feet chanting ‘Ali, Ali, Ali’, and he stood and quietly accepted the praise. I’ve only been in the presence of someone who can physically change the air in a room a couple of other times – Bill Clinton was another – an almost shocking experience in such a tiny space. Ali handed out Islamic tracts that he’d autographed throughout the day – basic ‘what is Islam?’ leaflets, which were guaranteed to be kept (and even possibly read) because of his signature. A colleague’s husband made a significant donation to Jubilee 2000 for mine…
And then outside, in an open top car, driving through Brixton with photographers and cameramen running alongside, and rather bemused crowds trying to see what was going on.
Later on there was more, including a quieter conference time with Jubilee 2000 leaders and board members, and a memorable group shot – something happened that’s only happened once or twice ever, where I was invited to have my picture taken with Ali (by his own photographer). For years after I would carry that picture with me (despite the fashion disaster of a jumper I was wearing that day) in case of trouble with militia or soldiers when I was traveling – everyone knows Ali, and just the fact you’ve met him changes how people respond to you. If I lay my hands on it, I’ll post it here as an update.
Champion boxer Naseem Hamed was at this later part of the day, and my picture of the two of them together made the Sunday Express that weekend:
One of the most frequent questions I get asked, particularly when I work in schools, is ‘have you ever met anyone famous?’. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown get shrugged off, but Ali? He always gets a response.