Driven by his photographic passion and youthful ideals, David Cairns has travelled the world for 40 years chasing conflict and famine. Yet in his quest to capture pictures that would open the eyes of the world and help change the course of history, David was caught up in a catalogue of bloody events in Belfast during the Troubles. It was this event that brought one of Fleet Street’s toughest news photographers to tears.

On 7 March 1988, British SAS soldiers wearing civilian clothes gunned down three members of an IRA ‘active service unit’. The shootings were carried out at point-blank range in broad daylight on a Gibraltar street. The three Republicans were Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell and Daniel McCann – ‘The Gibraltar Three’. It was during their funerals at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast on 16 March that David experienced his most terrifying assignment.

David, now 66 and retired, remembers clearly the day when the IRA buried their dead and loyalist gunman Michael Stone attacked the mourners, killing three and injuring 60 in a gun and grenade attack. ‘There were lots of photographers around the graves, so I went off into the cemetery to look for different pictures,’ remembers David. ‘I was constantly checking the light because I could only shoot colour transparency up until a certain time. I strolled through the graveyard, up a path and onto a slight hill. I was changing from colour to b&w film when there was a loud bang,’ he says, throwing his arms in the air. ‘A grenade exploded 50 yards away on the path I’d just walked up.’

He then recalls the total panic that set in. ‘At that moment all hell broke loose,’ he continues. ‘I didn’t know what had happened. I spun around and people were diving to the ground and hiding behind the gravestones for cover. Then the gunfire started. Because I was on raised ground, I looked down at the whole scene. In every direction there was chaos; everyone was running and hiding.’

Gunman Michael Stone opens fire at the IRA funeral of ‘The Gibraltar Three’, Belfast, 1988Gunman Michael Stone opens fire at the IRA funeral of ‘The Gibraltar Three’, Belfast, 1988 Canon T90, 500mm, Fujichrome Sensia 200, 2x converter

Sensing a major news story, David reloaded his colour film and put a 2x converter on his 500mm lens. ‘In the distance I could see this guy running away, but he kept stopping and turning to open fire,’ he explains. ‘He saw me standing on the hill with a 1,000mm lens pointing at him. I’m at the highest point in the cemetery, behind a large cross. It must have looked as if I had a rifle. Through the lens I saw him aim the pistol at me.’

The memory brings a nervous smile to David’s lips: ‘I didn’t hear any bullets go by. I wasn’t sure how far away he was.’ He slumps back in his chair and adds, ‘It all happened very quickly. I wasn’t frightened – I was excited. I’m a news photographer and this suddenly happens in front of me. That’s my job: how often do you get a chance like that?’

Loyalist assassin Michael Stone was then chased by the mob to the motorway, where he was beaten up by the crowd but rescued and arrested by the police. Catholic Belfast was inflamed by the attack that had killed three people, including 30-year-old IRA member Caoimhin MacBradaigh, and injured 60 others.

A fellow photographer took David’s original films back to London. The dramatic picture of Michael Stone shooting appeared on the front page with extra coverage in a ‘World Today Special Spread’ inside Today newspaper.

I also remember the day clearly. Working as a photographer for the Daily Star, I was in the graveyard as Michael Stone began his attack. Trapped by bodies and surrounded by family mourners, I photographed the panic and chaos around me. There were many good pictures taken that day, but it was David’s images of Michael Stone opening fire that will always be remembered.

In the city, there was a palpable sense of fear and anticipation. ‘I could feel the tension building up all around – I knew I should stay around,’ recalls David. Four days later that intuitive gamble paid off.

Just after noon on Saturday 19 March, David was driving to the funerals of those killed at the Milltown Cemetery. Checking his rear-view mirror, he noticed smoke billowing into the sky. At the same time the car radio announced a major incident in the area.

David looks a little on edge and hesitates. ‘The radio reports didn’t say what had happened, so I went to investigate,’ he recalls. He found a burning vehicle in a side road, and then heard that two people had been dragged from the car and taken away. With nothing to photograph, David decided to turn around and return to the funerals. It was at this point that he drove into the car park of the Andersontown Social Club. ‘I sensed that something was happening because I was suddenly faced with this huge crowd of people,’ he says. ‘I stretched across the seat to grab my long lens, and by the time I looked up the crowd had vanished. Maybe they thought I was army or Special Branch. All that was left was a black taxi with its doors wide open, two bodies on the ground and a priest. I leapt out of the car and started shooting on my Leica with a wideangle lens. It was scary. One guy looked dead and the other was on his last breath.’

Father Alex Reid gives the last rites to a dying British soldier. Belfast, 1988Father Alex Reid gives the last rites to a dying British soldier. Belfast, 1988 Canon T90, 500mm, Fujichrome Sensia 200

At that time David didn’t realise the two people were British soldiers Corporal Derek Wood, 24, and Corporal Robert Howes, 23. The pair had mistakenly driven into the funeral-procession route. The two off-duty soldiers in plain clothes were dragged from their car by a lynch mob, thrown over a wall, stripped and searched before being beaten and executed by the IRA.

Corporal Wood was shot six times, twice in the head and four times in the chest. He was also stabbed four times in the back of the neck and had multiple other injuries.

Though visibly upset, David keeps telling the story. ‘After the initial shock of seeing this, my head cleared and I started to think pictures,’ he explains. ‘I walked back to the road, turned and with a long lens took the picture of Father Alex Reid, the Catholic priest, with the soldier’s body. I wanted to isolate them from the background.’

By now, David is choked with emotion and fighting back tears. ‘I went back in again,’ he says, then stops for a moment to take control of his emotions. ‘The priest was giving the last rites and looked as stunned as I was. It was a terrible way to die.’ David stops to regain his composure and continues. ‘The army were circling above in a helicopter with cameras and could see everything that was going on.’

The events of that Saturday afternoon in Belfast 18 years ago still affect David. He stops for a moment to take a breath, but apologises as he feels embarrassed. ‘There

was nothing any man could have done to help them; they were past help,’ he explains. ‘The priest was doing his job and I was doing mine. It was a horrific scene to come face

to face with. I hoped that with time, it would be pushed to the back of my mind. But it returns to haunt me, and then I think about it all over again.

‘It is hard to explain or for people to understand, but when something like this happens your training as news photographer takes over,’ he explains. ‘I was in work mode: there were two dead bodies, a priest giving the last rites, a helicopter above and the IRA everywhere. I hadn’t a clue what was going to happen next.’ He then adds, ‘These events have played on my mind. You don’t witness something like this and then walk away unaffected.’

As soon as the army arrived, David returned to cover the funeral. ‘All the other photographers had their films confiscated by the IRA,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to lose mine, so I got the hell out of there.’

David walked through the cemetery and came face to face with Father Reid. David continues, ‘As he passed, he recognised me and just said, “God bless you, my son.” He was a good man. A very good man.’

David went straight to the airport and returned to London on the first available flight. The picture of the Catholic priest kneeing over the body of the soldier was published around the world, and that year David won Photographer of the Year and News Photographer of the Year. The picture was also named by Life magazine as one of the best pictures of the past 50 years. He sits back and relaxes for a moment or two before reflecting: ‘Not many photographers in their lifetime will come across two situations that dramatic within days.’

On the eve of the peace talks six years later, The Sunday Times called David’s picture ‘an image of compassion’ and reported: ‘What the world did not realise at the time was that this anguished Irish priest – a symbol of the nationalist community ministering in death to a symbol of the British authorities – was already deeply involved in a process that was offering the best chance for lasting peace in Ireland’s 300 years of war.’

It has been said that David’s picture contributed towards that peace process. If that is true, then his bloody work as a press photographer has brought the personal rewards that he has craved for. At last his photography has made that difference. AP

The other job…

Looking at David Cairns’ 40-year career, you might well believe that a press photographer’s life is all wars, famine, death and destruction. Well, don’t be fooled; when top Fleet Street photographers like David are not risking their lives on a frontline somewhere in the world, they are usually working on ‘soft’, enjoyable features – stories and pictures that fill the space between the ‘hard news’ at the front of the newspaper and the sports pages at the back. Most photographers will agree that covering daily news is easy, because it either happens or it doesn’t and you are in the right place or you’re not. When photographing features, it is up to the photographer to make the pictures happen. A good press photographer not only needs the skill to dodge the bullets in battle, but also the talent to come up with the off-the-wall ideas for the features department. Following are examples of David Cairns’ feature work which show that even away from action he has the eye for a striking picture.

Christmas in Lapland, 1974

Canon F-1, 28-105mm, Fujifilm colour negative film ISO 200

The Needles, Isle of WightBritain’s last lighthouse keeper, The Needles, Isle of Wight, 1994. Canon F-1, hired fisheye lens, Fujifilm colour negative film ISO 100

Orthodox Jews protesting at Whitehall in London, 1987Orthodox Jews protesting at Whitehall in London, 1987.

Canon F-1, 300mm, Fujichrome Sensia 200

Clapham rail crash, 1988. Canon F-1, 300mm, Fujichrome Sensia 200Clapham rail crash, 1988. Canon F-1, 300mm, Fujichrome Sensia 200

David’s kit

Canon T90

David’s first press camera was the Van Neck (VN) 9x12cm plate camera; followed by a TLR Rolleiflex f/3.5; Leica M2 with Canon 35mm f/1.5; Canon T90 with 500mm; Canon F-1 with 17mm, 20mm, 35mm, 85mm, 200mm and 300mm; Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with 20-35mm, 28-105mm, 80-200mm and 300mm