How to photograph... a riot

In what is now a much more timely article than when he spoke to us several weeks ago, award-winning press photographer Cathal McNaughton draws on his experience photographing the annual Orange Parades in Belfast and explains how he stays safe while getting the pictures he needs.

PM: How long have you been photographing the Orange parades?

I’ve been shooting the Orange parades for 16 years, give or take the odd year when I’ve had another assignment. The problem is there is always the potential for trouble.

At the start of the day you never know what time you will finish or if the job will run on for a few days. In the past two or three years the trouble has really escalated.

PM: How do you plan where to be along the route?

There is a formula to these events that you eventually figure out. In the last two or three years there has been one contentious parade that goes through Ardoyne, which is a largely Catholic, nationalist district in north Belfast.

Because of this, it is often the starting point for any trouble, because the residents aren’t happy about the Protestant Orangemen marching so close to their homes. I aim to get to Ardoyne for 7.30am and park my car in a safe area before the roads are blocked off by police.

At this point I prepare myself for any trouble, but often this procession passes off fairly quietly. Despite the obvious potential for conflict, people are more relaxed in the morning. They may be in bed or having their breakfast at 8am – it’s easier to ignore [the parade].

If nothing happens, I’ll then go elsewhere in Belfast and photograph the parade as normal, almost like a news feature. I look for pictures of people enjoying themselves. But all the while I’m careful to stay in the central Belfast area in case something kicks off at a parade elsewhere in Northern Ireland and I need to leave quickly.

Then in the early evening I go back to Ardoyne to wait for the return leg of the parade. This is when most trouble tends to happen. By the evening, people have had all day to ‘celebrate’, so there is more potential for trouble. And this has been the case for the past three years.

Last year on 12 July, when these pictures were taken, residents began blocking the road and trouble ensued. Riot police got involved to try to keep the two sides separate. People began throwing stones, and very quickly it escalated into cars being hijacked and set on fire, petrol bombs and more.

PM: What goes through your mind when it kicks off?

It’s important to try to stay calm, because you get caught up in the moment. Your instinct when adrenalin kicks in is to rush around and shoot lots of pictures. But then you’ll look at the back of your camera and realise you don’t have anything good.

So I make myself slow down and remember to pick my shots. I have to be quite clinical. It’s hard, though, to avoid getting overly excited when people start throwing petrol bombs, and bricks and bottles crash beside you.

The hardest part is being aware of your surroundings at all times, yet disciplined enough to choose your pictures carefully.

PM: Where is it best to be when violence breaks out?

These running riots can be very fluid, moving from street to street very quickly. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll be caught suddenly in no-man’s-land. Avoid at all costs getting caught between the rioters and the police, as you’ll risk being injured from both sides.

Strangely, it is best to be among the rioters or slightly off to their side. Unless police start firing baton rounds, they’re not going to be throwing any missiles. So if you are standing close to the people who are hurling missiles, you won’t be hit by them.

You have to be aware, though, that in these tense situations people can change their moods very quickly. Amid the trouble, there are moments of great humour and excitement among the rioters, but this can turn to anger in an instant. If they suddenly don’t want you there, you have to run. So I try to read their body language as the situation unfolds.

To see the full article and more of Cathal's images from the Orange , pick up the September 2011 issue of Photography Monthly

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