I had been to Belfast several times. I was a freelance photographer and all of my work came from the Sunday Times calling me and saying, “Are you interested in going to such and such a place?” They sent me abroad for a few weeks with a pocket full of expenses and complete freedom. But I had married a woman from Northern Ireland, so I had a special interest in the area.
This photo was taken in August 1976 during a trip to Belfast with writer David Blundy, who was later killed by a sniper in El Salvador. It has been a horrible but important week, because the events – and this photo – helped start the peace movement.
On the first day, Sunday 8, there were riots in the street and I had dramatic images of soldiers looming against the barricades. On Monday, I was on Falls Road, a well-known Republican neighborhood, and took a photo of children playing on the wreckage of a truck that had been hijacked and set on fire.
Tuesday saw a truly horrific incident. The army was chasing temporary IRA volunteers who were driving a stolen car and shot the driver, Daniel Lennon, killing him. The car pulled off the road into the railings as a family walked past. Anne Maguire and three of her children were run over by the car. Two of the children died instantly; the third died in hospital the next day. I photographed the accident: the mashed stroller and a bottle.
On Wednesday, incidents multiplied: vehicles set on fire, plane hijackings. On Thursday, the IRA hosted a funeral for Lennon, and the funeral for the Maguire children was on Friday. This photograph is of that, and their father. Thousands of people lined up on the procession route, Catholics and Protestants. People said, âWe can’t go on like this. And that’s what started the peace movement.
Maguire’s sister, Mairead Corrigan, helped organize a peace rally of 10,000 women for the day after the funeral. The following year Corrigan and Betty Williams, co-founders of Peace People, received the Nobel Peace Prize. In this photo there is a woman looking at me quite a bit and I felt I was obviously intrusive, but I had to take the photos. There was no other solution: I couldn’t do it from down the road or from somewhere. And photography was important in driving the peace movement.
Back then, most photojournalists were shooting in black and white, but the Sunday Times and Observer magazines demanded color, which added another aspect to it. The white coffin, the red flower on top, just gave it one more advantage. The very Irish skies, the very Irish faces – as a documentary photographer you have to record these things in such a way that the pictures tell the story. The test is this: If you remove the caption, could you still get the gist of it?
Unlike digital photography, you couldn’t spend your evenings looking at the photos you had taken and then sending them to the photo desktop with just the push of a button. I think it was better, less distracting. Blundy and I went to Elvis’ funeral in 1977 which was very strange, but we didn’t stay there long because I had to bring the film to the airport and return it by air cargo.
We didn’t receive any special training or protection for jobs like this, but the press was pretty well respected. The first time I was in Belfast, in 1972, we were shot at, but it was only because we were next to the army. There was an unfortunate schoolgirl walking behind who was shot in the thigh. They said to me: âCome down! You’ve never seen someone come down so fast.
The biggest problem I found working on the streets of Belfast was that stones were thrown at you because they could knock you out or kill you. I knew a BBC reporter who received a blow to the side of the head and lost hearing on one side. The army would also fire rubber bullets. We didn’t have helmets like they do now in dangerous situations. We just dodged.
Republicans recognized the value of having the press around early on. Loyalists were deeply suspicious but eventually realized that journalists were important for the footage and for telling people what was going on, and even for expressing their views.
Sometimes little old ladies offered you shelter. They would come out of their homes and say, “Would you like a cup of tea, my dear?” They were alone and scared. Lots of people were being murdered. You had undercover agents running around and informants. It was a vicious war.
See the work of Alain Le Garsmeur on galerieprints.com.
Alain Le Garsmeur’s CV
Born: 1943, France, then lived in Jersey, Channel Islands.
Qualified: Ealing School of Photography, Ealing Tech. Then as assistant to Donald Silverstein in England, and Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton in Paris.
Influences: Guy Bourdin, William Eggleston and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
High point: âPhoto London 2021; and World Press Award 1986 – first prize in the Daily Life section for a photo taken in China.
Low point: âRealizing that the editorial color magazines I had worked for had become lifestyle and cooking magazines. “
The best advice: âKeep a low profile whenever possible. “