Interview with David Eustace

We talk to the world-famous photographer about donning a cap and gown as a university chancellor

October 1, 2015
David Eustace, Edinburgh Napier University

David Eustace is a former Royal Navy Reserve and prison officer turned internationally renowned photographer. During his career, he has photographed stars such as Sir Paul McCartney, Dame Judi Dench and Sophia Loren. He first picked up a camera in his late twenties and was eventually encouraged to apply for the BA photography, film and television programme at Edinburgh Napier University. Earlier this year, the university made him its new chancellor.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Edinburgh on 23 November 1961. I was adopted a few days later and taken to Provanmill in Glasgow’s East End. I later moved to nearby Riddrie, where I was raised and spent my formative years.

How has this shaped you?
Where I grew up was, and still is, hugely important to me as it holds some of my fondest memories. I was surrounded by incredibly loving and supportive people, family and friends – hard-working, caring folk who measured wealth in terms of principles and common decency.

You have a close affinity with Edinburgh Napier University. How does it feel to be returning to the institution as its public figurehead?
I’m human, so it’s incredibly flattering. My first reaction was a mixture of gratitude and humility to those who have placed such trust in me and excitement that I have an opportunity to inspire others. I’m equally very aware of the responsibility that the role brings, not only in relation to the university and its history but also the hopes of so many who pass through its doors full of expectation each year.

What are your intentions for your chancellorship?
To listen, promote, support and inspire.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
Higher education changed my life – it’s that simple. My mind was always open and I always questioned, as, hopefully, I still do today. But these hopes were supported, encouraged and fed when I returned to the classroom. My wife and I made some hefty sacrifices and worked hard, but the rewards outstripped everything.

You worked on minesweepers for the Royal Navy Reserve and were then a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie. Did either of these roles inspire your photographic creativity?
My first interest in photography began when I was about 27 years old. I was working as a prison officer, and this hobby simply developed. I had little or no interest in photography when I was younger, and indeed no comprehension that you could earn a living from it. My time at Barlinnie as an officer contributed to my photography, indirectly perhaps, in forming who I was as a person, as it’s the person who is the photographer.

What were your most challenging moments in the Navy or as a prison officer?
We don’t have enough time or space in this interview to cover such a question. Each day and career was so diverse and removed from most people’s understanding of what a “day job” was or is. How many people, outside perhaps the armed forces and the police service, carry a weapon in their pocket to work as a form of protection? In the case of the Prison Service, it’s a world few will either understand or fully respect.

You’re well known for fashion, portrait and artistic photography; is there a particular area that you have yet to explore but wish to?
I’m constantly searching for new projects. Photography helps to answer some of life’s questions and, at the same time, opens so many wonderful doors of opportunity.

Have you had a eureka moment?
I live in hope.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
To absorb as much of life as I could. It’s the greatest thing we’ll ever be offered.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry – but that would be the old man speaking to the young child. It’s equally important that the young child learn and discover their own path. So I’d probably just smile and hope that it says more than the spoken word.

What were you like as an undergraduate?
I was an ex-prison officer who as a student knew that my class began at 9am and was very aware of the sacrifice that my wife had made for me to sit in that seat. I was focused but also aware of others' time and sacrifices. The seats we sit on in university are of incredible value – just ask the millions who dream of such opportunity.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Being told on the day of my interview as a mature student that I would be offered a place on the course, and equally the moment I heard that I’d graduated with distinction – not for me, but for those who had supported me.

What’s your biggest regret?
The ones I can’t revisit or the ones I failed to learn from. Thankfully they are few, and they belong to yesterday.

Tell us about someone you admire.
People of character, those who lead by example: the compassionate, those who share, those who inspire, those who forgive…perhaps this all sounds very predictable, but that’s the reality. I don’t admire individuals as such, more the actions of individuals.

You benefited from studying as a mature student. Would you recommend this to others who are uncertain about doing a degree later in their lives?
Absolutely – it’s never too late to learn. Experience is the greatest teacher we can hope for, and I’m sure that having the correct balance of age and youth in the same classroom benefits all, including the teacher.


Nick Pearce, the former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, has been appointed director of the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR). Mr Pearce, currently director of the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank, is already a member of the IPR’s advisory board. He will begin his new role in December. He said that in the face of huge economic, social and environmental challenges, governments the world over “need the in-depth, interdisciplinary and long-range research of universities to inform, shape and hold policymaking up to critical scrutiny”. Bath, he added, has long been applying its “world-class research and teaching to real-world policy”.

The University of Sheffield has made James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science and professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, its director of policy, impact and engagement. Professor Wilsdon will also hold a chair in research policy in the department of politics. He said: “I look forward to working…to demonstrate the vital contribution that social science makes to our economy, society, democracy and sustainability.”

Karen Holford, pro vice-chancellor in the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering at Cardiff University, and Bob Cryan, vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, are two of 50 engineers elected fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2006, Professor Holford was named Welsh Woman of the Year in science and technology; the following year, she claimed the Women into Science and Engineering (Wise) Excellence award. Professor Cryan became the UK’s youngest professor of engineering when he was just 30. Since 2007, he has been Huddersfield’s vice-chancellor. View the full list of fellows.

Andrew Blake, Microsoft distinguished scientist and laboratory director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, will take up his role as the inaugural director of the Alan Turing Institute on 1 October.


Print headline: HE & me

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