Our friend Stuart Griffiths, the guy who shot Liverpool’s youth gangs, mangled British troops, and more recently Siberia’s disintegrating drug casualties, has a new book out this month. Myth of the Airborne Warrior is made up of his photos taken during his deployment to Northern Ireland with B Para. We spoke to him about the book, the photos, and all the depressing shit that comes with being a British soldier in Belfast.
VICE: So, these are the photos from your time in Northern Ireland, when you were a young Paratrooper?
Stuart Griffiths: Yeah. It's all photos and also some ephemera. It's more about the experience of being a British soldier, the reality of it. It's quite different from what Photoworks have done before. I think they wanted to do something like Broomberg & Chanarin's book Fig and move away from the traditional style photo book.
Did they play a large part in the editing process?
They went through it all. They were really interested in these folders of old photos I had, even thought the quality was awful. They're just old machine prints, shot on an Olympus Trip or maybe a Sureshot. My stepdad bought me a camera and I only used it then because I suddenly thought, "actually, this is quite interesting." In retrospect, I wish I had taken more. There was so many things I didn't shoot, like guys shagging girls after the Pigs Disco.
Er, what is the "Pigs Disco"?
The Pigs Disco was at the Palace Barracks every Sunday. Girls from local areas would get vetted by security and cleared to come on base and go to the disco. They'd get absolutely drunk with a load of British paratroopers.To be honest, I used to feel pretty sorry for them. All the guys used to sit there and make pig sounds. I wanted to warn them—some of them were really nice girls. I mean, they weren't from the republican hard areas, they didn't know what they were getting themselves in to. I wanted to tell them, "You are going to hell in five minutes."
So the book has a fair amount of off-duty stuff in it?
Oh yeah, paratroopers love getting naked and dancing in vomit. I would have been about 18 when I started taking those photos. You take it all for granted at the time, but you are never back in that situation again. Once, when I was coming back from the disco and Speds, this black guy, was shagging a girl while he had his respirator on. I should have gotten a photo of that.
There are a lot of pictures of patrol too. Hopefully, they capture how mundane a lot of military life was. It's a fairly subversive viewpoint of the British army in Northern Ireland and how dull and depressing it was at times.
So the whole thing of no one wanting you there, you not wanting to be there, and the day-to-day grind of it all—that all comes across in the book?
Yeah, totally. It was originally going to be called The Northern Ireland Archive, but that was boring. The actual title, The Myth of the Airborne Warrior, conveys the sarcasm of it. 95 percent of being in the army was tedious and waiting for something to happen. That’s the reality of the myth. Luckily, nothing ever happen to me. Although, nearby we had an incident with some joyridering car thieves.
What happened there?
Well, we used to have a lot of problems with kids who would steal cars and ride recklesly through the streets. There were a lot of them always riding around and they would often panic when they came to a checkpoint. Anyway, A Company were involved in an incident where they shot some kids joyriding. Their car sped towards a checkpoint and one guy fired, then everyone else fired too. I think it was a teenage boy and girl. They were shot and A Company was moved off. We replaced them in time to take all the flak from the locals in the morning.
Sounds great. Did the army ever want to vet your photos? How did that work?
In the beginning, they totally ignored me—it was just, "there's Griff taking his holiday snaps." I was a young private soldier, known as a "tom." No one cared. Later I became a bit more prolific, I was regiment photographer. So people started to notice me. They wanted my film handed in to the guard room at the end of each go. It was all sent off to Lisburn and I never saw most of it again. They used to get annoyed, because I shot a lot of black and white and they wanted color. But it was my film, so fuck them.
As for censorship, there aren't really any "official secrets" in there. I mean, what is an "official secret"? It touches on those issues of bullying and drug use maybe. But no, I have never really had issues with censorship. It's more that it exposed that myth of the army life.
I guess that ties in with your more recent work about people after the army, and the impact the army has had on their lives?
A lot of people leave the army and have a terrible time adjusting. I had a real wake up call when I had to go to court on drugs and firearms charges, which sounds a lot more exciting than it was. But it made me get myself together. I saw a lot of people struggle with the effect of being in the army and its traumatic events. But even if they never went out on patrol, the army could still change them with all of its bullshit, regimentation, and sleep deprivation. I used to find myself drunk in a town center during a night on leave, stopping cars at imaginary checkpoints. People back home thought we were baby killers. The public opinion was tired of Northern Ireland and the bombs. The conflict was nearing its third decade. So at that point I felt that no one wanted to be bothered hearing my stories and I had to suppress those feelings.
But you're glad to be un-supressing them now?
There are 500 copies of Stuart's new book, The Myth of the Airborne Warrior, you can pre-order one of them here.