Photographing Bloody Sunday: the complex legacy of the Troubles’ most iconic images

The Conversation

On January 30 1972, dozens of photographers arrived in Derry, Northern Ireland, to cover a protest march against internment without trial. The day’s events turned violent when British paratroopers opened fire. The photographers ended up capturing on film one of the most significant events of the Troubles – Bloody Sunday.

In the early 1970s, war photography was burgeoning as a genre and a form of international activism. An international group of photographers made a living by travelling between the conflict hot spots of the world, including Vietnam, Biafra and Guatemala. From the late 1960s, Northern Ireland was one of the stop-offs, recorded in thousands upon thousands of images of running skirmishes between shaggy-haired men and the dark, hard shapes of British armour under a hail of bricks.

As the leaders of the January 30 demonstration reached the top of Westland Street and turned into the Bogside they were captured by Derry-born photographer Robert White. When armoured cars rolled into Rossville Street, French photographer Gilles Peress recorded the mounting tensions through thrown bricks and stones. Italian photographer Fulvio Grimaldi recorded confrontation across barbed wire, pointing guns matched by accusing fingers. As the British army started to fire, Colman Doyle recorded men and women scrambling for cover.

The first person shot that day was Jackie Duddy, a 17-year-old boxer, fatally wounded as he ran from a hail of British bullets. The image of Father Daly waving a handkerchief and leading a group of people carrying Duddy’s body through gunfire is one of the most reproduced of the Troubles, on murals, in history books and countless times in newspapers and on television. This scene was captured in dozens of images by the photographers named above and a BBC camera team.

These photographers testified that they intended to document state violence, and for their photographs to bear witness to human suffering. But this is not how the images were used. The photographs, rather than documents of solidarity, became a key part of the way the state “proved” the supposed guilt of the victims.

The photos played a central role in the ensuing enquiry chaired by Lord John Widgery, which sat for 17 days. Widgery pursued a line of questioning inspired by photographs of the wounded and dying, asking about what was in the hands and pockets of the dead, rather than the actions of those who had fired the shots.

When examining photographs of Duddy lying fatally wounded, Widgery asked about the object in the hand of a man standing nearby. In a series of photographs of Patrick Doherty shot as he scrambled for cover, Widgery asked why he had moved between images, speculating that someone could have removed a weapon from his body between frames. In a photograph of young men at the barricades, moments before Michael McDaid was shot in the back, Widgery focused attention on a man at the right side of the frame, asking if the object in his hands might have looked like a hand grenade to a solider under pressure.

When it was published, the Widgery report exonerated the soldiers who fired that day and put the blame instead on the march organisers. The photographs became one of a range of documents that enabled the final Widgery report to explore how 13 people died under the heading: “Were the deceased carrying firearms or bombs?”

The uses of these images reveal the paradoxes of the documentary tradition. These photographs were intended to generate a counter-archive, to record the violence of the British Army. Instead, they were used -— very literally -— to frame its victims. They recall Derry-born poet Seamus Heaney’s famous dictum: there is “no such thing as innocent bystanding”.

A new chapter

In the 50 years since Bloody Sunday, photography has taken on a new role in empowering survivors and making sense of their memories. The image of Father Daly leading Duddy’s wounded body through gunfire now stands, larger than life, on the end of a terrace in the Bogside. It was painted by a local artistic collective, the Bogside Artists, who aim to produce work which is “commemorative and in being so … is also curative”.

The feminist photographer Joanne O’Brien photographed family members of the deceased on the spot where their relatives had died. These portraits reframed Bloody Sunday not as the events of one afternoon but rather gruelling decades of campaigning, which fundamentally changed the lives of many in the community.

Again this year, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, marchers will walk through Derry holding banners aloft painted with the faces of the dead. These close-cropped images of those who died have now taken on a talismanic importance for all those who have lived through and lived with the events of January 1972. Fluttering in the cold January wind against grey Derry skies, they are a reminder of the youth of those killed, and that their lives cannot be reduced to the events of the day they died.

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This article is based on research funded by the Leverhulme Trust.