Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton discusses the delicate nature of photographing a paramilitary funeral in Northern Ireland when tensions are high.

Award-winning Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years? experience covering conflicts and breaking news for national newspapers and international press agencies. He will share his best press photography and reveal how he captures a subject in ways others haven?t seen.

As a press photographer, covering funerals is always tricky. The success of the shot always depends on proximity. The closer you can get to the family and the coffin (your main subject), the greater the chances of getting a more emotional picture. However, your ability to do this depends on two things: how many other members of the press are in attendance, and the circumstances surrounding the death.

When someone dies of natural causes, it?s generally OK to get up close to your subjects. The atmosphere is more relaxed and the whole event is treated more as a celebration of the deceased?s life. These funerals are more managed, meaning you can better anticipate what will happen and where you should be. When the circumstances surrounding the death are different, however, it can get chaotic.

I took this picture in 2000 at the funeral for a member of a Loyalist paramilitary group. The man in the coffin was Tommy English, who was murdered by fellow Loyalist paramilitary members. The people carrying the coffin are what?s called a paramilitary colour party. The young girl framed between them is Tommy English?s daughter.

The thing that stands out for me in this picture is that English?s daughter is being framed by symbols of violence in Northern Ireland. There?s the coffin and the paramilitary members in their full regalia with balaclavas, and then she is in the middle. She was only eight years old at the time, so she?ll be 18 now, but so much has changed since then. There has been a ceasefire and the handing in of all weapons. In her lifetime she was able to see the end of all this trouble, but it was too late for her father. This picture has really taken on significance for me over the years because of this.

I was actually looking out for this picture before I took it. I was trying to capture a picture of the coffin because you need to include that in the frame if you want your picture to be published, but you also need to show the grief. Getting family members or links to the deceased together in the frame, however, can lead to very ?unclean? images. They can look disjointed, with awkward spaces and gaps in the picture. So when covering a funeral such as this one you are looking for ways to compress the image and bring everything closer together. I use long focal lengths in these situations because they have the effect of bringing everything closer together and help reduce much of the messiness in the background. Plus, using longer lenses helps you keep a distance and respect people?s privacy.

On this day the background was particularly messy because masses of people were lining the streets to show their support. I wanted something nice and clean, but it was proving difficult to compose.

This was happening at a time when there had been a spate of killings, and tensions were running very high. I was a Catholic from Northern Ireland and had to go into the heart of Belfast?s Tiger?s Bay, a Loyalist stronghold, to take this picture. My offices at the time were only about a quarter of a mile away, but it was a world apart. I knew I couldn?t hang about too long: I had to go in, get my pictures and get out quickly.

I tried a number of angles and saw the young girl walking beside the coffin. I could see in advance what was going to happen and figured she?d eventually walk between the paramilitary members carrying the coffin. I exposed for someone else who was walking on her side of the coffin so I could get an idea of what the exposure should be, and then I waited, tracking their movements with my lens. Sure enough, she emerged between them. The moment occurred in a split second, but I managed to get the frame. By exposing for the people on her side of the procession, where the light was falling, I was able to darken the Loyalist figures in the foreground on either side of her. This helps her stand out in the frame and isolates the viewer?s attention on her expression.

I was shooting on a Kodak Pro DCS 520, one of the early digital cameras. The conditions were terrible on the day, so I was shooting at ISO 1600, which on those cameras was very unstable. I was really taking a risk, but I needed to get that picture. With breaking news, the conditions are never going to be ideal, even at a planned event like a funeral.

Often as a photojournalist you?re torn between getting the picture and wanting to respect people?s privacy. You may even feel like you shouldn?t be there, but you develop an instinct for reading situations. You learn how to be respectful and do your job at the same time. Even at a funeral such as this, you may feel like you are intruding upon people?s grief, but you have to remember that this is a well-known person and it has to be documented as for history.

To see more of Cathal?s photography, or to book a place on one of his workshops and field trips, visit