Tony Blair’s now somewhat haggard features are familiar – too familiar. His made-up face stares at us every day from images in the papers or on television. In this context, the photographer Nick Danziger has done something remarkable – he makes us look at Blair in a new way.
His new exhibition, Blair At War, shows photographs of the prime minister and his coterie in the run-up to, and immediately after, the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There is a sense now, in the dying days of Blair’s regime, that it is being run from an embattled bunker. And at times during the 30 days of Danziger’s access to Downing Street, this sense verged on literal truth.
In one picture, Blair looks strained as the war room’s Cold War clocks tell the time in Moscow. Meanwhile a plasma screen displays George Bush on the news, lurking like Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Nick Danziger describes the process of taking the photos: “The commission wasn’t to document what I actually ended up doing – it was to do something like a feature film for Blair’s 50th birthday.”
“They didn’t let me into Downing Street on the basis that I would be documenting what eventually took place. It was very fortuitous to have such a historic moment take place and to be there documenting it – it was a fluke.
“At that point, when the project started, no one knew that a war would be taking place. Decisions could have been made that would mean the war wouldn’t happen.
“So at first I was brought in only to do one or two days’ work over a few weeks – then what was meant to be six days of photography turned into 30 consecutive days.”
Blair’s government has been notorious for trying to control its “message”, with spin as important as substance to the New Labour machine.
But these images are powerful partly because the elites depicted don’t always realise their effect.
As Nick describes it, “Not only did I have this amazing access, but they never asked to look at the images prior to them being published. They asked about two days before the original piece was published – but by then the actual magazine had been printed.
“It’s extraordinary because we hear so much about spin – but in this case I can put my hand on my heart and say they had no input in terms of how these images should be used. I think that will come as a surprise to many.”
One picture shows Blair having make-up applied for a broadcast to the nation to explain the Iraq invasion, while spin doctors and advisers huddle over his speech.
There is tension in the image, which does more than show the artifice of the sound bite.
At the moment captured in this photograph, Blair famously said that he will “answer to my maker” for deaths in the war. He even wanted to end his address to the nation with “God bless you” – though his officials persuaded him against it.
Getting “behind the scenes” often leads to nothing more than the revelation of trivia. But in Danziger’s photographs every detail is revealing.
One shows an uncomfortable Blair trying to explain his plans for the Middle East on the phone to Yasser Arafat. In the mirror we can see the then omnipresent Alastair Campbell watching over his every word.
Simplicity in a photograph can tell us a great deal, notes Nick: “There are some images that are quite subtle. There is one which is of Blair and Bush – when you first look at it you think it’s Blair looking into a mirror, but it’s the two of them, very close to each other.”
In a corridor of power, French president Jaques Chirac takes Blair away from his advisers, assistants and security in order to berate him.
“It is quite a classic portrait,” says Nick. “It’s President Chirac and Blair, the first time they meet after the war has started.
“You sense the tension, that this is a really serious conversation taking place. Chirac is trying to make his point to someone that he had once been very close to – but now he disagrees very vehemently with Blair’s decision.
“What I’m trying to do is take pictures that convey what was taking place at that moment. So if you look at the images, you’ll see many of the people who were around at that time – the prime minister, the cabinet ministers.
“Their facial expressions do actually give an idea of their feelings and emotions. For example, there’s an image of the members of the cabinet outside the cabinet room waiting to go in and see the prime minister. What’s on their faces gives you an idea of what is taking place.”
At that moment – 7.55am on 20 March 2003 – they know no more about the final decision to launch the attack on Iraq than the rest of us tuned in to the early morning news.
Standing around an antechamber in Downing Street, drinking tea and coffee from china cups, they wait. Meanwhile, in a locked room behind them, the real war cabinet meeting is already in progress.
Rather than being told by the prime minister that the country was at war, they had been roused from their beds by policemen or phoned by journalists with news of the first US air strikes.
“I come from an old tradition of documentary photography,” says Nick. “I’m not trying to say one thing or another – people have to make up their own minds.
“I’m just a recorder – the images are for the viewer to either enhance their understanding of a situation or to give them a window, an opportunity to see something they wouldn’t normally see. Then, as a consequence of that, they may or may not have an opinion.
“The access I sometimes have to politicians can be quite extraordinary. We live in a period where most of these world leaders are taking decisions that affect the way all of us live.
“When you’re up close to a political leader, we might already feel we know them because we see them so much on television and hear so much about them. But there is another side that the general media can’t portray.
“The pictures are fairly in your face – ‘this is the way it is’, with as little colour added. I’m trying to explain that this is part of history, and that history changes as you move forward and look back.
“Hopefully the writing and photography is done in such a way that people can come to their own conclusions.”
Another photograph perfectly captures the arrogance of power. In the secure grounds of Camp David, the men of power strut in their suits.
It was described immediately afterwards as the “Reservoir Dogs” picture and it’s an appropriate nickname.
Except that this not a gangster movie, but powerful, dangerous men armed with real weapons of mass destruction feeling content, smug even, about their decision to use them.
The Marxist art critic John Berger said the importance of a photograph lies in the way in which “what it shows invokes what is not shown.”
In these photographs, the outside – the streets, the victims of the decisions – are absent.
But the mass opposition to the war drive nevertheless influences and shapes the pictures.
“I think it’s important to know that in some of the pictures, from where the prime minister is sitting, he could hear people shouting ‘stop the war’ outside,” says Nick.
“What’s interesting about these photos isn’t just the images – they’re about telling you what was taking place at that very minute, including the fact that the prime minister could hear people shouting.”
Blair At War: photographs by Nick Danziger is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 15 July
Photographs are copyright Nick Danziger/contact Press/nbpictures and cannot be reproduced