“Go on, live dangerously.”
This was Terence Spencer’s favourite phrase, and one that his daughter Cara would hear time and time again throughout her life. Terence was a man who heeded his own advice. As a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II, he conducted reconnaissance missions on Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs.
After surviving two stints as a prisoner of war and a near-death explosion over the sea, Terence went on to become a photojournalist, contributing to Life and People magazines.
Terence’s career was diverse. He spent time with musical legends like The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Sting. He photographed Princess Diana and Prince Charles. He shot portraits of Louis Armstrong, Richard Branson and Goldie Hawn.
But he also covered pivotal moments in modern history: the Vietnam War, the Congo Civil War and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.
Before passing away in 2009, Terence asked his daughter Cara to keep his work alive.
Through a photo exhibition called ‘Living Dangerously,’ Cara has done just that.
From documenting life backstage with The Beatles to Jomo Kenyatta’s release from prison, ‘Living Dangerously’ is an exhibition that traverses continents and cultures. It is on display at the Nairobi National Museum until January 17, 2018.
Saturday Nation sat down with Cara Spencer to learn more about her father, his life’s work and the lessons we can all take away from it.
Your father was British but you were born in South Africa. How did your family end up there?
After the Second World War, my dad was offered a job to fly an airplane to South Africa. When he got there, the guy whose plane it was said “do you want to become my private pilot?” My mother, Lesley Brook, was a British actress. She was on tour in South Africa, and they met on a blind date. They stayed for 15 years, on a farm between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
How did Terence Spencer make the transition from pilot to photojournalist?
During the war, dad did a lot of reconnaissance flying. They’d have to photograph sites they were planning on bombing. At the end of the war, the British officers had to go to Germany and decommission the German airplanes, and he stole an aerial camera. So when he got the job flying to South Africa, he took the camera with him.
I understand your father documented some of the most pivotal moments in modern history.
Yes. He covered the US Marines landing in Vietnam. He was in his 40s by then, and he was marching 18-20 miles a day with the Marines. He followed Nelson Mandela on the run.
A great friend of ours was the lawyer who defended Mandela in the Rivonia Trial and kept Mandela in a safe house for a while. He also covered the Congo revolution, which was absolutely horrific.
Were you ever concerned for your father’s safety?
I remember being really worried for him. Dad was away for weeks, often months on end.
Your dad also photographed key moments in Kenyan history
He covered the Mau Mau Uprising. And he got pictures of Jomo Kenyatta when he was coming out of detention.
Has President Uhuru Kenyatta seen the photos Terence took of Jomo Kenyatta?
I’ve invited the president and I hope he’s going come to the exhibition. I had met him a couple of times in London because we were both in the tourism industry before he was President. I said: “I wish you’d come because I want you to see the pictures my father took of your father.”
In addition to the photos your dad took of Jomo Kenyatta, do you have a personal connection to Kenya?
I came to Kenya on holiday in 1977 and stayed for 11 years. I got a work permit and became a freelance safari guide. My time in Kenya was just amazing. The tourism industry was booming, and I spent half the year on safari. Then I went back to England and started by own safari company, so that I could keep coming back.
How did your dad start photographing The Beatles?
Dad was always asking for story suggestions from my mother and I. So one day, at the age of 13, I said “Dad, you must do a story on The Beatles.” He said, “I don’t think America’s going to be interested.” Still, he sent the story idea to the then-managing editor of Life magazine, who happened to be driving around New York with his 13-year-old daughter.
The Beatles came on the radio and she went “Oh my God, it’s this amazing British group!” The editor said, “Spencer’s been going on about them. We better get coverage.”
So dad went all around England and across Europe with The Beatles and spent hours with them in their dressing rooms. He said they were so sweet and very funny.
What’s it been like to go through your father’s photo archive?
It’s like being in a sweet shop! The other day, a Swedish chap who was helping me digitise the photos emailed me and said “Cara, amongst all this stuff on the Congo, there are pictures your father took of Muhammed Ali.”
Well, of course it was the “Rumble in the Jungle”, a famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974.
What’s the greatest lesson your dad taught you?
To grab life by the throat, and just go for it. And be interested in everything.
What do you hope visitors take away from ‘Living Dangerously?’
I want people to realise that there’s a whole world out there. I think that’s what dad opened my eyes to.
‘Living Dangerously’ is on display at the Nairobi National Museum until 17 January 2018. The museum is open daily from 8:30-5:30pm, including weekends and holidays. Entry fees are as follows: Kenyan citizens: Sh200 for adults, Sh100 for children under 16. East Africa residents: Sh600 for adults, Sh400 for children under 16. Non-residents: Sh1,200 for adults, Sh600 Ksh for children under 16. For more information on Terence Spencer’s work, visit www.terencespencerphotoarchive.net.