By Fran Zell
Driving along busy expressways en route to the “Princess Diana Exhibition: Accredited Access” at the Oakbrook Center mall in suburban Oak Brook, I can’t help but think about her tragic death at age 36 in a horrific car crash. And then for me it’s all eyes on the road, though now I’m thinking how that kind of control wasn’t possible for Princess Diana, existing at the mercy of other’s rules and whims and ultimately at one driver’s drunken recklessness while pursued by paparazzi.
But the brilliant photo exhibit, described as “the first ever walk-through documentary” turns that kind of thinking on its head. Beginning with a view of Diana as a shy 18 year-old nanny and nursery school teacher, we watch her evolve to a starry-eyed bride, loving wife and mother, sophisticated fashion icon, and finally into a fearless advocate for humanitarian causes.
The collection of huge, larger-than-life photos, which takes at least 60 minutes to view, winds through various makeshift rooms in a former hardware store at 19 Oakbrook Center. On entry, visitors receive a headset and phone, whose audio provides a personalized and detailed guide to every photo, contributing to the intimacy of this show.
Much of the audio was recorded by Anwar Hussein, the gifted official royal photographer who used film and a Nikon camera to document Diana’s every move and mood from the time she first met Prince Charles. Hussein shares stories about the making of the photos and how luck, hard work and skill often combined to enable him to obtain his most famous shots. Hussein’s adult sons, Zak and Samir, who also became royal photographers, contribute their perspective to the audio, adding to and amplifying their father’s stories.
We see Diana’s happiness in many photos and feel her pain in others as her marriage dissolves. Through a whirlwind of social galas, polo games, and world travel, we watch her navigate royal protocols and dress codes, and create rules and social norms of her own. She introduces “hands on mothering” to England’s royal family, foregoing nannies and bringing Prince William and Prince Harry with her on travels from the time they were small. Dancing with Prince Charles at a formal event, Diana contemporizes an age-old royal broach by wearing it around her forehead as a glam accessory.
Eventually Diana learned to use her fame and lofty position to encourage the whole world to be more human. There’s the iconic 1987 photo in which she shakes hands with an AIDS patient, defying the prevailing social stigma around the disease. In an equally famous photo from 1997, she walks through an active minefield in Angola, simply dressed in white jeans, white blouse with rollup sleeves, and abbreviated body armor. It was an effort to highlight the world-wide danger of unexploded land mines. Organizers of the HALO Trust, an NGO dedicated to disarmament which Diana supported, credited her for the Mine Ban Treaty, which was signed by 122 states later that year, just a few months after she died.
The exhibit includes many photos of other members of England’s royal family, including one of the queen at a polo match with Hussein’s son Zak as a child standing beside her. Wearing a babushka, calf-length pleated skirt, black leather jacket and sensible shoes, she could have almost been mistaken for the boy’s nanny, which makes it both a startling and powerful photo. The show also includes richly-rendered portraits of Prince William and Kate Middleton and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, most done by Zak and Samir Hussein, contrasting their father’s work on film with their preference for digital.
But mostly this is Princess Diana’s show, and long overdue, bringing back to life a woman whose important legacy has been eclipsed by memories of her sudden and tragic death. The Diana we see in the final photo, tenderly cradling a dying, blind child in Pakistan, leaves an indelible impression of a fully-realized woman whose capacity for love and compassion are bottomless. We need her influence now more than ever.
“Princess Diana Exhibition: Accredited Access” runs through Feb 27, 2022 at 19 Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, IL. (located between the Pottery Barn and MG+BW Furniture, a short walk from the Macy’s parking lot). It is open by advance reservation on Wednesday and Thursday from 11 am to 6 pm; Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 7 pm ;and Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. All ages are welcome. Adult tickets begin at $25. The show will be simultaneously running in New York and Los Angeles. Click for reservations .