Friday 4th March was probably one of the most touching and emotional presentations we have had at Bangor Camera Club in recent times. With most of the members showing up in person in the club and a few on zoom it certainly was an evening to remember. Hugh Russell began telling us that back then, every photo taken, was on film, compared to today's photos which are digital, therefore they never knew if the photos they took would even develop properly. We then watched the documentary “Shooting the Darkness” The documentary started with how these handful of photojournalists would cover events such as Royal visits, Balmoral shows, pop stars, wedding photography and just general photo opportunities that needed coverage for the press.
In the blink of an eye that would change, when violence erupted in 1968 and these photographers found themselves in the midst of some of our darkest times in Northern Ireland. They were thrust into being war correspondents in their own home towns. Instead of waking up being excited as to what they had to cover that day, they faced the new reality of waking up having to cover daily bombings and murders. It was their job, but they were scared, really scared! Every day was a different situation therefore the photographers couldn’t prepare themselves mentally for what they would encounter when they went to work each day. The photographers didn’t realize what they were actually doing in historical terms by documenting what was happening around them in that moment. To them it was their day-to-day job. There were some horrific images the photographers saw through their lens but couldn’t capture, a split decision as to what they saw and if they could press the button.
One of the most iconic photos was taken on Bloody Sunday, when from out of the mist came a priest waving a white handkerchief stained with blood and carrying the body of 17yr old Jack Duddy who had been fatally injured.
One such incident was a child being carried out uncovered, after a bomb in Belfast in 1971, and the photographer froze at the horror of what he saw and couldn’t take the photo. Approximately half an hour later another child was carried from the wreckage and that child was covered, the photographer did take the photo. The photographer thought that taking this photo might stop paramilitaries and deter them from bombings when they saw what he had seen. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case because it had the opposite effect, people queued to join the other side for retaliation, which distressed the photographer. In one photographers' account of events, he thought he would be on scene for a couple of hours yet it turned out he was there for 2 weeks. Photographers were told there would be gunfire close to them but they didn’t know what direction it was coming from. Their job was to take photos and record any event that was happening. Some images turning out to be symbolic depictions of the troubles.
The nationalists soon realized that the images the photographers took could prove beneficial to their cause and some photographers got a tip off that it would be advantageous to them if they were in a certain area at a certain time. In other circumstances such as riots, the nationalists allowed the photographers to work in amongst them, taking photos to psychologically make the viewer think that the loyalists and police were the aggressors. Loyalists then thinking the photographers were working with the other side. As one photographer said, they don’t take sides, they take pictures.
Another historical photo was Sean Downes being shot and killed by a plastic bullet in Andersonstown in 1984. The police officer was arrested for murder, then reduced to manslaughter, however, he was eventually cleared when video footage from TV companies was analyzed. There was no doubt Sean Downes was running towards the police with a shaft of wood raised behind a police officer's head ready to attack. This was the moment the police officer fired the plastic bullet.
Then there was one of the most sickening and horrendous incidents that took place when two soldiers drove up a road and into the path of an IRA man’s funeral. The car immediately reversed back down the road but the mourners swarmed in on the car and pulled the two soldiers out the window and murdered them. The photographer on the scene spoke of how he had to get into the right place to document this but then also know when the right time was to get out. However, this time, the crowds turned on the photographers and demanded all film was to be given to them. One photographer quickly wound on the film and took it out of his camera and hid it, replacing it with a new film, to make it look like he was ripping it out and destroying it when asked to do so.
Other photographs that came out of the troubles included a woman clasping her hands as she prayed over the covered body of a man shot dead while he washed his car; a police officer fighting with a man in a crowd as a dispute raged over the route of a funeral; and a young girl peering from her front door, marked with bullet holes, pub shootings and innocent people caught in crossfire.
Many of the photographers say that when they were present at some of the worst horrors, they saw their camera like a TV screen and tried to disconnect from what was going on the other side of the camera. Every photo they took, they wanted to portray the story that went with it. The photographer always wants the viewer to be connected with their photos, feel the event, see the pain and fear in the subjects' eyes. The cost of documenting the evidence of our dark past left some of the photographers with post-traumatic stress. There are photos they will never forget and some of the photographers thought they had lost their own sense of humanitarianism after attending so many shootings, deaths and harrowing situations.
Indeed, this week's presentation was very powerful and a poignant reminder that we, as a country, should always keep going forward with positivity and respect for each other. Neither religion nor opinions should ever take us back to the times that these photojournalists captured.
Many thanks to all photojournalists in this documentary and special thanks to Hugh, Trevor and Stanley who managed to come down to the club and brought some of the photos mentioned, with them.