Children of Conflict:
He had a finger cut off on both hands; he had been shot through his wrists, knees and ankles. A couple weeks later the paramilitaries who had done it returned to apologize for having mistaken his identity. The first time I had photographed him he was an 8-year-old schoolboy on a playground in West Belfast in 1981.
I returned to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to once again photograph, shoot video of and listen to children I had randomly photographed in 1981. They are part of my project entitled, Small Arms: Children of Conflict that encompasses four continents and eight countries.
I am tracking down and telling the stories of children now in their early 30s who I had photographed over 20 years ago: the children who worked in hashish factories in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon; the children of El Salvador who were viewing a row of severed heads; the identical twins dressed as angels in Nicaragua who were about to release "Peace Pigeons" since no doves were available; a boy with a broad smile sitting on the burned-out remnants of a bus, griping the steering wheel.
Children suffer the most during conflict and this reportage is being done in the hopes that the viewers will reflect upon the implications of political and economic conflict, war and racism as it pertains to those who suffer most and have the least control over their lives, the children.
To find my first group of previously photographed subjects I asked the Belfast newspapers to run articles and photographs about the project. Five articles were run and virtually all the children I photographed in Belfast in the '80s were found and or accounted for. The articles published along with my original photographs and the video I recently shot have generated interest from two UK production companies.
One is run by a former BBC producer who has approached the BBC/PBS on doing a six-part series, which would chronicle my search for the rest of the children in the other countries. He was "blown away" by the candor of those I had interviewed regarding their lives and how "The Troubles" had affected them. One of the most striking pieces of video I shot was the discussion which took place in the Short Strand 9 (a staunchly nationalist area of Belfast) in the middle of the street, in which a group of women longed for a return to "The Troubles" because of the dramatic increase in suicide (highest in the EU), drug usage and crime. During the Troubles "there was no crime or drug usage; two people have committed suicide on this street in just the last six months," a woman remarked. With the disappearance of the paramilitaries, policing is now done by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and they have only begun to recruit Catholics, thus some neighborhoods are lacking proper protection.
The search thus far has turned up a fascinating variety of stories about how these children have coped with their situation and what has transpired in their lives as adults. Some have committed suicide, many have been imprisoned, and one became a millionaire and owns radio stations in Spain.
The search, even when it temporarily fails, yields interesting results. I received a phone call (cell phones sure make news gathering easier these days) on my recent visit to Belfast from a father who thought one of the boys in one of the photographs was his son. I had prepared 19x13 black-&-white prints that I showed him to see if it indeed was his son since the newspaper photographs did not have the same clarity.
It turned out the picture was not of his son but he brought up the fact that he was a boxing coach and that boxing was somehow the only thing that bridged the sectarian gap in Belfast. Somehow ritualized combat resulted in friendly relations. This is something I will be exploring on my next trip to Belfast in July.
The candor and power of these former children's lives is predicated, I think, on many factors. The major reason they are so willing to share their thoughts is that in many cases because of the conflict even their parents were either unwilling or unable to listen to them. They spill their guts in a manner that is therapeutic for them--one older man remarked to me, "there is still so much pain here." A boy I had photographed during an IRA commemoration back in 1981 at Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast who had been accompanied by his grandfather--his father and older brother were in prison at the time--began to cry as we rolled tape and he looked down at the grave of his now-deceased grandfather, now buried in the same cemetery where we had first met. This boy, Paul McNally, now in his 30s, worked as a barber when he was 16. One day a paramilitary burst into the barbershop firing several rounds into the owner of the shop, killing him next to Paul. He then began to shoot at Paul; all five shots missed him.
Small Arms: Children of Conflict is also the name I have given to an exhibition of 36 black-&-white photographs from the '80s, which will appear at The Chazen Museum Art in Madison, Wis. I am also publishing a book by the same name of the photographs. The artistic royalties as well as print sales will be donated to UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees). While working in Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan this organization was tremendously helpful to those enduring conflict as well as to myself and I would like to thank them with this support and as a way to help those directly affected by political conflict.
© Michael Kienitz
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