Bringing The War Back Home:
I never went to Northern Ireland to photograph "The Troubles"; I had had enough of them here in the U.S.A. The '60s were a rough time here; the anti-war movement was in full swing and I had been documenting it whenever I could. Almost every weekend there would be a demonstration and I'd cover it. After being hit by flags, clubs and tear gas, my enthusiasm diminished.
So, in 1968 I headed for Belfast. I'd heard of the non-violent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement trying for social change using tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and based on principals of nonviolence. By then the word "nonviolence" had a strong appeal.
It may not have been my smartest move. In the next two years violence broke out but I was hooked on the landscape, the people and the situation. I returned again and again.
By 1972 I'd landed a modest book contract and returned for a lengthy stay. The British Army had moved in, first welcomed by Irish Catholics as protectors but later seen as supporters of the Protestant status quo. The Provisional IRA had formed, obtained weapons and established "no-go zones" that kept British patrols out of some areas. Militant groups on both sides formed and daily killings and bombings were the order of the day.
To stretch my budget, I took to doing radio reports for Reuters. I'd leave my apartment, arrive by bus in Belfast and broadcast from a hotel each morning. Every day, the news led with a tally of the latest body count of "WAM" killings – police shorthand for killing "without apparent motive." Then I'd photograph, ending my day at the hotel to catch up with the press camped out there.
Northern Ireland wasn't an easy place to work. The random nature of the killings and almost daily bombings meant there was never a place behind the lines. You were at risk all the time.
When I left the hotel to head home at night the desk clerk would offer to go out and vouch for the taxi driver. One group known by the Protestant area they came from as the "Shankill Butchers" had commandeered some taxis and would pick up passengers. True to their name, they used butcher's tools to work on their victims.
The Protestant gangs were the most feared by the press. They thought journalists were biased towards the Catholics. So coverage of their side was difficult. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) felt the need to try a PR campaign to get more favorable coverage.
A small group of us were invited to attend a UDA drinking club along the Shankill Road. We nervously waited before being invited upstairs; as we waited, we could hear sounds of weapons being dismantled and put away.
Tommy, our UDA PR man, took us upstairs and we joined in a night of drinking. After a few hours, I felt it my duty to take a few frames and figured my best bet was not to try and sneak shots. So, I stood up, moved into the center of the room, and squeezed off some frames. The room got very quiet.
Tommy squeezed my shoulder and took me over to see “Big Dave”, the group’s very drunken leader. He wrapped his arm around me and said, “It’s a good thing I like you because I could have you taken out and fooking shot”.
A few weeks later the PR campaign came to an end and Tommy was beaten to death by his comrades. A dispute over extortion kickbacks that funded most militant activities it was said.
One morning the IRA blew up a paint factory on the edge of the Shankill. I was shooting but kept hearing a voice in the crowd, “He’s with The Irish Times.” The Irish Times was published in the South and was Catholic. I tried to find the photographer to tell him to get out. But the voice got louder as I moved through the crowd. I suddenly realized that the woman was pointing to me.
Burly men surrounded me but just then a door opened to allow a TV crew into a building. I slipped away and followed them. The building was a maternity hospital and allowed us to shoot from its roof. I thought I was safe.
Shortly afterwards a RUC policeman came looking for me. With his hand on his gun he told me to go outside and “take my medicine.” A nurse pulled me away to an office where another journalist was taking refuge. Every few hours we’d look out the window and see a small mob of men holding metal rods and bricks hiding on the side of the building waiting for me to come out. Fortunately the other journalist a writer for paper in the South hadn’t been recognized. We drank tea and swapped tranquilizers.
My friend figured out a plan. He called a cab driver he knew. The taxi came up to the door and he slipped in, then threw open the back door so I could rush out the door and dive in. The driver had been prepped to pop the clutch as soon as I was in and we got out there just as the mob started for me.
Going back to the hotel I followed what had been a daily routine. I popped 5 more tranquilizers and downed them with Irish whiskey.
By 1974 my book was finished and I moved on to other projects. In 1998 I had some injuries in Bosnia and stopped working for a few years. I used part of that time to take a sabbatical and attend a Quaker School in suburban Philadelphia. While there I was asked to show some of my work and I did a presentation for my classmates. When I finished it my hands and voice were shaking.
Within weeks, flashbacks started. A photograph I’d taken in 1972 kept coming back to me. It had been of a bus taking Catholic workers to a building site. Someone threw a grenade into the bus and one exploded in a workers lap. My picture just showed the seats, shrapnel and a pool of coagulated blood forming on the floor. Blood I’d unknowingly stepped in.
Fortunately, I had attended a workshop on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder run by The Dart Center at NPPA’s 2001 convention. I recognized the symptoms.
I called Frank Ochberg a psychiatrist who organized the workshop and his contacts helped in finding the best therapy. Without that help I don’t believe I would have worked again.
Photographers are used to working alone. We seldom have the support the public expects for first responders or our military. It is time we recognize our vulnerability both to help our fellow journalists and ourselves.
Afterward: In one study, 28% of career journalists covering wars are found to have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It is a figure higher for that of first responders. Other journalists are at risk covering accidents and tragedy sometimes in our very own neighborhoods. Symptoms of PTSD can include reoccurring recollections, emotional numbing and changes that affect sleep, concentration and emotional relationships.
More information can be found at www.dartcenter.org and a new online self-diagnostic study developed by Dr. Anthony Feinstein of John Hopkins University and co-sponsored by CNN can be found at www.conflict-study.com
© Leif Skoogfors
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