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16 February 2023

Charlie Forgham-Bailey: My most meaningful portrait

A winner of the Portrait of Britain prize, this photograph of Richard Ratcliffe is an image of stoicism, exhaustion and love.

By Charlie Forgham-Bailey

In November 2021 the New Statesman interviewed Richard Ratcliffe about his hunger strike in protest at the imprisonment of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in Iran. For that piece, Ratcliffe was photographed by Charlie Forgham-Bailey. In 2023 the photo was selected as a winner of the Portrait of Britain prize; with all the 100 selected portraits it is being displayed as part of the UK’s biggest annual photography exhibition and published in a book, “Portrait of Britain Vol 5”.

This portrait of Richard Ratcliffe is one of my most meaningful to date. Really, it was quite momentous: my first in-person portrait job since March 2020 (nearly twenty months earlier), after having become quite ill with long Covid. The fatigue and breathlessness had left me unable to walk more than a mile or so a day, but as my management of my symptoms got better and my frustration at being more or less housebound got worse, I felt I had to take on a commission. Gerry Brakus, the New Statesman’s creative editor, knew what I’d been going through and offered me this portrait. It was one I really couldn’t turn down. Gerry explained I could go at any time over the weekend and told me to “just do what you can”.

I’d been following the story of Richard and his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, since she was first detained in Iran in 2016, and felt deeply about their situation. She was seemingly used as a political bargaining chip by the Iranian government to reclaim money owed to it by the British government, and was finally freed only on 16 March 2022 after years of tireless campaigning by Richard, including multiple hunger strikes. This photo was taken four months before then, on 6 November 2021.

My girlfriend drove me and dropped me on Whitehall, as I couldn’t manage the 45-minute drive into town on my own. With minimal kit I walked to meet Richard at his makeshift camp outside of the Foreign Office. It was immediately obvious how fatigued he was by the whole process. Not just by the 14 days of hunger strike he had so far completed, but also the years of turmoil inflicted by having his wife, the mother of his child, imprisoned in a foreign country known for human rights abuses.

There was a steady stream of supporters passing and wishing him well, so it took a few minutes to introduce myself. Eventually I said hello. I think the fact I was wearing flip flops and a bandage (owing to an unfortunate meeting of my foot with an axe) on a very cold day in November helped to break the ice.

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We didn’t say a great deal to each other – it didn’t feel necessary. Maybe it was a mutual, unspoken recognition of the suffering we had both endured (his much greater), but we seemed to have an understanding for one another. He was so visibly exhausted that I didn’t want to cause him any more stress with a difficult conversation, but we talked a little about how he was and the exasperation he felt due to the lack of any real help from the government, despite their “positive” words. He said that they were stringing him along, having meetings with him which turned out to have no real substance.

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I only made around 50 photographs before I started to feel quite shaky and out of breath and had to stop. This one in particular stands out for me. There’s stoicism, exhaustion, exasperation, frustration, fear and love – all in one expression. I hope that comes across to others. If I can elicit a feeling in someone with a portrait I’ve made that connects them with the subject of the story, then something as seemingly superficial as a photograph can become meaningful. Ultimately I’ll never know if my work made any difference to Nazanin’s story, and really it’s irrelevant. I’m happy that Richard no longer has to wear that mournful expression.

Read more:

Iran protests: How Mahsa Amini’s death sparked fury

Iran’s regime won’t be easily toppled

The startling composure of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

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