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'They saw an astonishing amount of horror': The photographers who shot the Troubles

A new documentary on their work goes out on RTÉ One tonight.

THERE WERE MORNINGS where the photographer Alan Lewis would have to decide which murder scene he’d go to – which was high profile, which had more people killed, did this person have a family… stuff like that would inform his decision. That’s incredibly grim but this is what they had to do.

During the Troubles, press photographers played an essential role in capturing what was going on on the streets of Northern Ireland. They showed the world the tragic deaths, the violence, the unrest, the bullets and the blood. 

But many of those local photographers never intended on becoming war photographers. They set out to be press snappers, and perhaps take photos of weddings or gigs on the side. Instead, they found themselves thrust into a darker and more difficult world. Now their story is being told in a new documentary, Shooting the Darkness, which airs tonight on RTÉ One.

Rather fittingly, director Tom Burke and producer Thomas Kelly were both working on the picture desk at the Irish Daily Mail when Burke first hit on the idea of making a documentary about press photographers. But it was when Burke chatted to the Irish Times’ Frank Miller a few years later about his idea that things took a new twist – Miller suggested it might be better to talk to the press photographers from during the Troubles. 

He said this made sense “because they have seen a lot of horrific stuff and somebody should go and talk to them and document their experiences”, recalls Kelly. The pair got talking to photographers in the north, and found that they were very open to the idea.

A story not yet told

“It was story that hadn’t been told and I think they really did want to speak about it,” Kelly tells TheJournal.ie

Rather than being a strictly news or history documentary, this looks more at the craft of taking photos – and doing it in a warzone. “It’s about the guys who did this stuff. It’s about how they learned their craft; what’s a good photograph, the impact of a photograph,” says Kelly. 

Paul Faith Pacemaker Photographer Paul Faith in 1992

As a consequence, it doesn’t always include the big events that you might expect – the Omagh tragedy, for instance, isn’t featured. That’s because often the photographers found themselves talking about some of the more unexpected events and photos that still resonate with them. 

“That isn’t necessarily a high profile event. Sometimes it’s something small that you might not have heard of,” says Kelly. For instance, one photograph Hugh Russell will never forget taking is one of a young Catholic who was killed by loyalist terrorists in 1992 outside his house.

Russell went to take the photo, finding a gap between two parked RUC trucks to see the body lying covered with a sheet. “A lady came out of house, started to pray over him and he took that picture. And that wasn’t a high profile death, it wasn’t at that stage. The Troubles had been going for so long generally only multiple fatalities made the press. But it really resonated with Hugh and it was one of  the first things he told us about,” says Kelly. 

He felt that some of those individual deaths and those individual tragedies were some of the saddest houses that he would visit … because it didn’t get the attention that perhaps it merited.

The job of getting ‘collects’ for the paper was another difficult element of the role. “You had to go and knock on the door of the house where somebody had been killed and had to ask for a photo,” says Kelly. “All of the lads said without question that was the worst bit of the job because you were going to these houses where people were grief-stricken, and you didn’t know what sort of reception you were going to get. Sometimes people were welcoming, sometimes people were angry.”

Sometimes the victims whose photographs were taken became pivotal figures in the Peace Process, like Loughinisland massacre victim Barney Green, who was 87 when he was killed – the oldest victim of the Troubles. 

“People [were] not wanting to live with this anymore, people not wanting to see these images any more,” says Kelly. “That was quite striking.”

Stanley Matchett Bloody Sunday Stanley Matchett's photograph of Bishop Edward Daly carrying a bloodstained handkerchief ahead of the body of Jack Duddy. Duddy was shot dead in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972.

Cows getting rosettes

Some of the older photographers were working as professional photographers for a while before the Troubles. Stanley Matchett used to cover gigs, and shoot album covers for bands like the Dubliners. He and his peers did not anticipate becoming war photographers.

“They were snapping cows getting rosettes and overnight they become war photographers,” says Kelly. “It was an incredibly difficult transition and they just had to deal with it because there was no other option.”

The men allude to how difficult the job was in the documentary. “It can’t but affect you,” says Kelly. One photographer told of covering the story of a 13-year-old who was killed alongside her grandfather in a bombing. “The sound at that funeral of wailing schoolgirls… he found it incredibly difficult to lift a camera that day,” says Kelly. “It’s something he remembers incredibly vividly.”

The photographers had to be front and centre, and not take their eye off what was happening. “They saw an astonishing amount of horror,” says Kelly.

“They were at hundreds and hundreds of funerals, they knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors to collect photos. It was incredibly difficult. It’s remarkable and it speaks of their professionalism and strength of character that they’re all as composed as they are.”

The nature of their job must have meant that the men didn’t get to think too hard about what they had gone through. “They wouldn’t have reflected on this much at the time, but they reflect on it now because at the time you just had to kind of get on with it and do the job,” says Kelly. “But now they’re older, some of them are retired and they are processing it a bit more now. They went through their archives for us for the documentary so they’re looking at their images again – some they haven’t looked at it 20 years.”

Getting the men together to tell their stories wasn’t hard, even though the subject matter was tough. “It wasn’t difficult because we did have so much help and cooperation,” says Kelly. “It was a story that a lot of people felt needed to be told and that was reflected in the cooperation.”

Shooting the Darkness will be aired tonight, 30 January, on RTÉ One at 10.35pm.

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