Flowers from an imam

Last week, we got a phone call at The Banbury Guardian offices and were told that a very famous imam was visiting the town that night. Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais is the imam of the Grand Mosque in the Islam holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia and leads more than two million followers in prayer during the annual pilgrimage there and would be in Banbury Town Hall that evening to give a talk. Immediately we decided we had to get coverage of the event, so I went to take pictures.

I photographed the Sheikh as he left the hall, and it was honestly one of the strangest experiences of my career. While photographing him, town councillors asked if they could have their picture taken with him, so I suddenly found myself instructing the group and the 'pope equivalent' where to stand! I felt myself getting some funny looks from his guards/drivers and security, but the man himself seemed more than happy to pose for pictures. Once the group shot had been done I changed to my 70-200 lens in hope of getting some nice portraits. Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais acknowledged me and waved for the camera. I responded by thanking him and waving back. What happened next was very bizarre! He leant into the car, pulled out a bouquet of flowers and ushered me over. I had to work through several security guards who again seemed to be questioning why I was there. He then very kindly presented me with the flowers, which incidentally he'd been given earlier in the evening. I was unsure at first whether to accept them, but was told, by the now very large group of people around us, that the flowers were a gift to me. I took them from him, shook his hand and thanked him greatly. He was then driven away to continue his tour of Britain!

A very enjoyable photoshoot and a great story for the paper. I was told a couple of days later that the story of his visit and the bouquet presentation had appeared in papers in Kashmir and Saudi Arabia! The Sheikh regularly gives gifts to people, but it is apparently the first time he has presented a photographer with anything... I feel very surprised and rather privileged!