Photographer Crispin Rodwell was driving home from his office in central Belfast one Monday in August of 1988, the day after his son's first birthday, when the car in front of him exploded. "It was just stopping at traffic lights, and then it was engulfed in a ball of flames," he tells me.
Over three decades later, Rodwell still remembers every detail of the incident – not least because the graphic pictures he took of it made the front pages the following day. "It was an IRA booby trap bomb. Alan Shields was his name – he was a British naval recruitment officer, a lieutenant," says Rodwell. "The contents of his golf bag landed on my car."
Realising immediately that there was no chance that the victim – who was 45 years old, and also, it turned out, a father – could have survived, Rodwell went "onto auto-pilot". "I was taking photos when the cops came up two minutes later," he says. "One was screaming in my face, 'Get back, get back,' and I was there with a camera. I must've looked like a right sick bastard." It wasn't until he got back to the darkroom that the magnitude of what he'd seen really sunk in. He was shaking so much it was difficult to print the pictures.
The killing of Lieutenant Shields is just one of the horrific stories Rodwell retold in Shooting the Darkness, a documentary about seven ordinary Norther Irish newspaper photographers whose lives were turned upside down during The Troubles. The photographers featured – Alan Lewis, Paul Faith, Trevor Dickson, Stanley Matchett, Martin Nangle, Hugh Russell and Crispin Rodwell – were men who, in the normal run of things, would be shooting local items of interest: award presentations, weddings or newborn baby gorillas at Belfast Zoo. Instead, they found themselves photographing soldiers on British streets, innocent children's funerals and the vicious sectarian violence of Northern Ireland's many paramilitary groups – as well as being frequently shot at themselves.
Rodwell still works as a news photographer in Dublin, where we meet in a café to discuss his work. It's a week before lockdown will come into force in Ireland, but he's already been shooting the country's first drive-thru Covid-19 testing site. Now in his fifties, he tells me with an almost boyish delight how he managed to charm a local resident into letting him onto their roof to get a better angle. Given everything he's seen over the course of his 39-year career, this seemingly-undimmed enthusiasm for the job is impressive.
Originally airing on Irish TV in 2019 before doing the rounds at this year's international film festivals and being released as a book, Shooting the Darkness shows us how the men effectively became war photographers by accident. But, as the film's director Tom Burke explains, because they're all Northern Irish, their experience of documenting the 30-year conflict was even more intense than if they'd been regular conflict correspondents.
"There's war photography like Don McCullin, but that’s, 'I'll parachute in, do some coverage and go back to my real life,'" says Burke. "For these guys, their own lives were wrapped up in this. It's more like, 'This thing is happening all around me. I thought I was going to do wedding pictures, and now I'm doing body parts.'"
"It makes a huge difference when the people you're photographing – both victims and perpetrators – are neighbours," Rodwell agrees. "You feel a real part of a story."
Like many of his generation, Rodwell was touched by the tragedy of The Troubles personally. "My two best friends were both killed in the first six months of my career," he tells me. "Both were policemen. One was on his first day at work in a station in County Tyrone, and a landmine under the road blew up the armoured car he was in – he was a school friend. Then a very close family friend, Colin Dunlop, was guarding an injured IRA man in Royal Victoria Hospital, and the IRA went in and shot him dead."
Faced with such horrors, it's hard to imagine how anyone could maintain the kind of detachment needed to do the job. But staying impartial was essential – not just because of a laudable commitment to showing readers the unvarnished truth, but as a practical matter of personal safety. "You had to [stay neutral] because you didn't know that afternoon if you were going to be in a Loyalist area or a Republican area," he explains. "As my colleague Paul Faith says in the documentary, 'Photographers don't take sides, we take pictures.' That was a maxim we all abided by."
If a photographer’s neutrality was called into question, things could get very nasty very quickly. Rodwell was threatened "twice in quick succession" by the IRA and their supporters because he worked for The Sunday Times. "Once with a gun in my back," he tells me. "It was at an Easter Rising commemoration march in County Tyrone, and I felt something prodding me in the back. I turned round and this guy was saying, 'Walk, walk.' The crowd, these 300 people about to have this rally, just parted like the Red Sea. I was led away, two or three hundred yards down the road to a filling station. There was a car with its engine running and the boot open."
In the end the paramilitaries settled for taking all the film Rodwell had on him, and issued him with a warning never to return, which he subsequently ignored. "I thought, 'I'm not going to be exiled from a town in my home country,'" he says. But despite the hundreds of witnesses, the culture of omerta among both Unionist and Nationalist communities meant that incidents like this very rarely led to police action. "Paramilitaries on both sides were always very good at burning the evidence. If anyone buckled and started implicating any colleagues, they were executed."
Shortly after the incident, Rodwell, who had moved his young family to a farmhouse outside Belfast, installed panic buttons, a safe room and an alarm that would warn him if a car came up the drive. Beyond taking such precautions, there was little more that the photographers featured in Shooting the Darkness could do. "They know where you live, and they know where your fiancée lives," Tom Burke says. "That was a dimension not shared by the British photographers or Southern Irish photographers." And even if you weren’t deliberately targeted, there was always the danger of becoming an accidental victim.
"We really were stuck in the middle," says Rodwell. "It wasn’t one side, either – at one point I had a sash-wearing member of the Apprentice Boys of Derry come at me with a ceremonial sword."
One of the images that sticks in Burke’s memory from filming Shooting the Darkness is a photograph by Hugh Russell. It shows a body, barely covered by a sheet, lying on the pavement outside an ordinary row of terraced houses. “He was just a guy washing his car,” Burke recalls. “A group of gunmen had come up looking to shoot some other people, he'd warned them and they’d run away. So they turned around the car and shot him."
Confronting the sheer capriciousness of death like that on a regular basis must, you’d imagine, have had a psychological impact on these photographers. It’s not like ordinary local newspapers stopped during The Troubles, so, as Burke explains: "They'd be doing a birthday party or a cheque presentation in the morning and a bombing in the afternoon." The cognitive whiplash involved going from one to the other is almost impossible to compute, but when Burke raises the question of PTSD in Shooting the Darkness his interviewees brush over it.
In person, Rodwell seems similarly reluctant to dwell on the subject. “We're all probably very different people than if we had elected to be wedding photographers or something,” he says. “But who knows?”
What does emerge from the film is that the act of taking photos itself may have helped these men cope. "There’s no doubt in my mind that they experienced trauma,” says Burke, “but they all talked about this idea of the camera as a shield. When you lifted up the camera, there was an unreality to it. It was abstracted somehow. If you were standing there looking at a funeral, it was absolutely heartbreaking, but if you lifted the camera up to your eye you could distance yourself somewhat. You could think about composition, and you could think about other things."
One of Rodwell’s most striking shots shows a collection of personal effects picked out of the carnage of the Omagh bombing – the single worst atrocity of The Troubles. The image, dominated by a pair of baby's shoes, has the instant sucker-punch poignancy of Hemingway’s apocryphal six-word story. As with the photo of Alan Shields’ murder, the composure needed to shoot such a tragic scene with a steady hand is remarkable.
As he talks about the framing, pointing out little details like "the hair still stuck to the glasses", Crispin’s tone is far from dispassionate. His disgust at the people who were capable of such atrocities is absolute, and his revulsion for the paramilitaries on both sides remains undimmed by the intervening years.
More than anything, it’s the horrors those who witnessed the reality of The Troubles saw up close that Tom Burke was hoping to convey with Shooting the Darkness. “Crispin's point of view was that the whole thing was a tragedy, that it should never have happened,” he says. Yet it did, and for three decades the streets of ordinary Irish and British towns were transformed into warzones. With that in mind, the documentary, Burke says, “is supposed to be a cautionary tale".
"It's about what happens when you ignore the fundamental conditions in Northern Ireland," he says. "It’s about how bad things can get when the forces at play are ignored by outside parties. These seven people saying, 'L__ook at how bad things got. These are our photographs of how bad things got.'"
Readers in the Republic of Ireland can watch Shooting the Darkness on RTÉ here. Broadstone Films are currently pursuing a UK distribution deal.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.