QE2 Photographer Alan Snelson's QE2 Story

Updated on November 15th, 2020 by Rob Lightbody

You can view a collection of Alan's fabulous photos in The QE2 Story's Gallery by clicking this link.

My first contact with QE2 was at Southampton in April 1978. My sister Christine had just finished her second world cruise and was due home on leave, so my family and I travelled down from Norfolk to collect her from the ship. She had tried to get visitor passes for us but there were still threats to the ship from the IRA so passes were very hard to come by. Even so, we were able to get alongside and met my sister at the bottom of the gangway. I was amazed by the sheer size of the ship; I had never seen anything so huge before.  I was totally in awe and the thought of ending up working aboard was beyond my wildest imaginings.

My first time in the Caribbean December 1978 On the gangway with Tony Secker on the left
My first time in the Caribbean December 1978 On the gangway with Tony Secker

Although I didn’t realise it, the QE2 ball had started rolling for me a few years earlier; my sister was between jobs having been evacuated from Cyprus where she had been working as a travel rep when Turkey invaded the island in 1974. During a visit to friends, she had bumped in to an old friend from Art College who was working as a shipboard photographer. He was just about to go to Southampton to see the boss of the company he worked for, Ocean Pictures, he said ‘why don’t you come along for the ride?’ She went to the office with him and whilst there she was persuaded in to taking a job as a photographer aboard the Fairwind.  She had no real experience of photography other than a little Kodak Instamatic so, as I was interested in photography at the time and owned an SLR camera, I had to give her a few hasty lessons in the basics of how a camera works as soon as she got home.  She joined Fairwind in 1975 and was based out of Fort Lauderdale most of the time. In the early part of 1976 a company called Ocean Trading, who already had a number of shipboard shop concessions, took over the concession for the onboard photography operation. By the middle of 1976 my sister had become dissatisfied with the way the concession was being run compared to how it had been with Ocean Pictures and left to return to the UK. She arrived at Heathrow and purely by chance bumped in to Stuart Hunter-Cox, the owner of Ocean Pictures, in the airport. Stuart was just about to leave on honeymoon with his new wife Jane. He said they would be away for three weeks and asked Chris to call him when he got back. This she did and was offered a job on QE2 which she joined in August 76.

Hearing all the stories of my sisters’ travels and the fantastic times she was having at sea I thought I would apply for a job. Given the apparent ease with which she had been taken on I felt sure that I would easily get accepted. I wrote to company after company only to be met with no after no, all of them citing my lack of experience. Before long I ran out of companies to contact and gave up the chase. Luck was on my side in early 1978 when my sister was given contact details for the Hayling Island Photographic Company. They held the photography concessions for several holiday camps in the UK, so I got in touch with them right away. Unfortunately my luck was short lived as I was a few weeks too late. They had already recruited for the season and had no vacancies, but to my surprise, a couple of weeks later I received a phone call inviting me to Norwich for an interview. It seems that one new person had backed out and there was a vacancy at Pontins holiday camp at Pakefield in Suffolk, which was quite convenient as we only lived about an hours’ drive away.

I passed the interview and the following week my parents delivered me to the camp. I was very nervous until I met up with my work partner, a very mad Irish man called Tom. He was an absolute workaholic and loved getting stuck in with a camera so my work was mostly in the kiosk selling our produce. I did get some camera work but it was mainly on things like Fancy Dress and Glamorous Granny competitions which Tom hated. I had been there for about six weeks when there was a call over the camp PA system asking me to go to the reception desk as soon as possible. I arrived at reception and was given a message to call home immediately. Fearing something unpleasant I made the call. My very excited mum told me that I had to call Stuart Hunter-Cox right away as he wanted to speak to me.....  

“Are you still interested in working at sea? Good, I need you to join QE2 on August 26th so you will need to be in Southampton a week before to have all your medicals and get all your clothing sorted out” Stuart informed me when I called him. “I will need your passport and a couple of photos for your US visa as well” This gave me just over two weeks to get everything sorted. Mum posted my passport and photos off to Stuart, I finished at the camp at the end of that week and the following week made my way down to Southampton on the train.

During the previous year John Carroll, one of the bridge officers, had become a family friend and as he was away on QE2 he gave me use of his house which was in a small town just outside Southampton. On top of that Stuart, being the very generous employer that he was, gave me the use of a company van and an advance against wages so that I could afford to kit myself out with all necessary clothing.  So, armed with a list provided by Stuart of what I would need and where to find it I went shopping.  It really was fantastic the way all these things fell in to place so even though there was much to do it all went well. I got kitted out with tuxedo, dress shirts, blazers, grey flannel trousers, dress shoes etc. Then all the whites for the tropics, white trousers and shoes, short sleeve shirts, white socks, the list seemed to go on and on. No wonder Stuart had told me to bring a big suitcase but don’t put too much in it. I passed my Cunard medical including a chest X-Ray, had the last of my vaccinations and was ready to go. My US visa came through in very quick time so I was good to go. Stuart had also provided me with a stainless steel processing spiral and an old roll of film to practice my darkroom skills, so that kept me busy for a couple of evenings whilst I perfected my technique.

The day to embark finally came, I made my way to the Ocean Pictures office and Stuart took me down to the ship. The dockside was a hive of activity with people coming and going in all directions. We went up the gangway on to Five deck which, with the ship having just docked, was literally crawling with people. We squeezed our way along to F Stairway and down to Six deck to the darkroom where I met the rest of the team, one of whom was my sister. She recently reminded me of the expression on my face when I arrived at the darkroom door. “A mixture of abject terror and complete exhilaration”.  We had decided to keep our relationship under wraps as she had been on board for some time and didn’t want her friendships to have any influence on my settling in and establishing myself in my own right. The photography team obviously knew, but that was it.

After meeting up with everyone I was taken along to cabin 5014 which was to be my new home. I dropped off my case and was then taken on a tour of the public rooms where we would be working throughout the voyages to come. I found it hard to take it all in, the scale of the ship, these huge rooms and all the fantastic furnishings and decor; I had never seen anything like it before in my life. The ship was still only ten years old at that point so although there had been a number of changes she was still not too far away from her original decor and layout. The style was quintessentially British and looked very modern and stylish.  As we progressed with the tour it all became a bit of a blur as my senses became overloaded. Whilst we were in the Queens Room we met up with two of the ships entertainers who were friends of my sister, they invited us to join them in going ashore for dinner that night, so after finishing our tour I went back to my cabin to unpack and get ready to go out again.

We went to an Italian restaurant called ‘The Pizza Pan’. I ordered ‘steak ala pizzaiola’ which was so good that I said to my sister “I could eat that all over again” she said “Why don’t you then? You can afford it now” so, much to the delight of the chef and restaurant owner I ordered, and ate a second one.

A restless night followed as I got used to the noises of the ship and people coming and going. New beds always seem strange, even though it was very comfortable; there was also a good degree of nervousness about my first contact with passengers the next day. The morning came so I dressed in my grey flannels, blue blazer and white shirt with QE2 tie and finished off with shiny new black shoes.  I proudly pinned on my ‘QE2 Photographer’ badge and looked in the mirror “This is it then” I thought. “I hope I can do this” Then I made my way to the darkroom.

Embarkation started at 10.30 as I recall and we needed to be there half an hour before that to set everything up in preparation for the new arrivals. After a nervous start I soon got in to the swing of taking the photos, my sister and I alternating on the cameras. As film was used up in one camera we swapped places whilst the other reloaded, a third team member would pause passengers as they reached the top of the gangway so that we could get a good shot. We had to keep moving quickly so as not to delay the embarkation process too much. The whole event was very frenetic with so many people coming aboard at the same time but within a couple of hours it was pretty much all done and we could relax. After waiting another hour or so for the later arrivals we went off to the darkroom to process the batch of films we had just shot and a couple of hours after that we were done for the day. I didn’t even notice that we had set sail for Cherbourg.  

I had survived my first day at work on QE2. With films processed and printed and our darkroom jobs all done the photography team met in the Theatre Bar for drinks and then off to dinner in the Tables of the World. “This is the life” I thought as I looked through the menu, and I am getting paid to be here!! Of course life on board got a lot busier than that as the voyage progressed.

On transatlantics we only had passengers aboard for a few nights so we had to make the most of our time with them. The first night we would photograph the First Class Captains cocktail party in the Queens Room followed by late sitting ‘Tables of the World’ dinner pictures. The next night would be the two Tourist Class Captains cocktail parties which were held in the Double Down Room. Between cocktail parties three of us would photograph passengers at dinner in the Columbia restaurant whilst the fourth team member would cover the Grills. The following night would be first sitting ‘Tables of the World’ dinner and general wandering around the public rooms and bars.  Naturally all the photos we had taken needed to be processed and printed and ready for sale by the following morning so late nights were commonplace. If time permitted we would sit down for dinner but not always. It was once said by one of the Chief photographers that “eating was a privilege not a right”. The final night at sea we didn’t shoot any pictures as all our passengers would be leaving the next morning. For us it was a relaxed evening spent at dinner followed by a few drinks in the Theatre bar.

In our position as concessionaires we were very privileged. We were able to make use of public rooms and restaurants; we had our own table in the Tables of the World restaurant, cabins on five deck and access to all areas of the ship. We were also allowed in to crew areas and bars although we didn’t make frequent use of that privilege as some crewmen took exception to us being in “their territory”

My first few trips were back to back transatlantics followed at the end of October by my first “Teapot Cruise” to the Canary Islands.  This was followed in November by the annual drydocking in Southampton.  I rejoined after drydock for a seven month stint until QE2 returned to Southampton in April following the World Cruise. During my years on board I was fortunate enough to work on four world cruises, my final one in 1982 as Chief photographer.

After my first World Cruise in 1979 I was offered a six month stint on Cunard Countess doing seven day Caribbean cruises from San Juan, Puerto Rico. which I really enjoyed. The atmosphere on the smaller dedicated cruise ships was very different to QE2 and so were the passengers. It really was seven days a week on these cruises, we carried around 700 passengers and we took pictures every day except Friday. Saturday was turnaround day so one group of passengers got off and within a few hours the next group were embarking. We were in port every day except Sunday so I was able to enjoy the various treats our ports of call offered. Sunday was a sea day, Monday La Guaira, Tuesday Grenada, Wednesday Barbados which was my favourite and I would go water skiing at Sandy Lane Beach Hotel or horse riding in the sugar plantations, Thursday St Lucia and Friday St Thomas, another favourite as I would often go sailing with some friends who lived there.

This work pattern was to continue for the next few years as I would be on QE2 for some of the transatlantic season and the winter cruises/world cruise, then for the summer I would join the Countess or one of the other small ships on which Ocean Pictures held the photography concession. It was the best of both worlds and I really enjoyed it. The smaller ships were great fun but coming back to QE2 was always like coming home, I would pass other crew members going around the ship and they would enquire where I had been and if I had been on leave and they were usually genuinely pleased to see me back. There was a great family atmosphere amongst the people who worked aboard and that communicated to the passengers too, I think that is why people kept coming back year after year. World Cruises were like a family reunion with so many regular voyagers, many of whom became good friends.