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How One Photo Immortalized Princess Diana’s Loneliness

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Of the many photos of Diana, Princess of Wales, one image has become iconic for capturing the unnerving loneliness she experienced during her life. The photo shows Diana in a candid moment alone, sitting on the end of a diving board.

It's a picture that helped define the essence of the People's Princess—a glamorous outsider, the patron saint of isolation, a public figure who struggled to protect her personal life. It should come as no surprise that when Netflix announced Season 6 of The Crown, the first installment of which debuted on Nov. 16, the streamer shared the news by recreating the famed image of the princess, reimagining it with actor Elizabeth Debicki: Her back is to the camera, her chin protectively tucked into her shoulder in Diana's signature habit, her loneliness in full view even as so much as her is obscured.

princess diana diving board
Princess Diana sits on the edge of a diving board on Dodi Al Fayed's private yacht "Jonikal" in 1997.API/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Read more: 25 Years After Princess Diana's Death, She's Still Shaping the Royal Family

The Crown is hardly the first to pay homage to the photo—from the promotional poster for the 2013 Naomi Watts-fronted film Diana to the invitation to the Off-White Spring/Summer 2018 fashion show, which was inspired by Princess Diana, the diving board photo has been reproduced, reappropriated, and referenced, looming large in the collective imagination, a tangible visual for the melancholy of Diana's life. Most recently, the musical artist SZA recreated the photo for the album artwork for her album, SOS, a decision she said she was drawn to because of "isolated" the princess appeared.

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"Originally I was supposed to be on top of a shipping barge, but in the references that I pulled for that, I pulled the Diana reference,” SZA said in an interview with Hot 97. “Because I just loved how isolated she felt, and that was what I wanted to convey the most.”

The image would be striking for its composition alone. Diana, clad in a turquoise one-piece bathing suit, perches, almost precariously, on the edge of the diving board of Mohamed al-Fayed's private yacht, with seemingly nothing but sea surrounding her. That the photo is a long shot taken by a paparazzo, six days ahead of her death, in the throes of a media maelstrom that had erupted after tabloid pictures were published of her kissing al-Fayed's son, Dodi, reads in retrospect like ominous foreshadowing.

Read more: How Princess Diana Changed Lives by Discussing Her Mental Health

And while there's no shortage of photos that illustrate how alone the princess often felt in royal life—her awkward Balmoral engagement photo with an aloof Charles, the shot of her wearing her black sheep sweater to a polo match, the infamous picture of her solo visit to the Taj Mahal—the image of Diana sitting solo on the diving board has become one of the most iconic images because it highlights the bittersweet isolation of Diana's life—a woman who could never be alone, but was no stranger to being lonely.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com