PHOTO INSIGHT – Cathal Mcnaughton

Sometimes a little humour goes a long way. Cathal McNaughton explains the story behind this bizarre, imaginative image

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

I took this image one sizzling summer. It had been a particularly hot spell and I went out to take some pictures to show just how hot it was. The idea of photographing beautiful girls in bikinis eating ice cream to illustrate a hot day leaves me feeling cold, so I went for something a little different instead. I like to inject some humour into my images whenever I can, as a lot of the work I do can be intense, sad or difficult to view.

At the time I was shooting for wire news agency the Press Association. Quite often I?ll spend an entire day walking around hoping to get one picture that tells a story in a unique way. Sometimes while walking you?ll see odd things around you that catch your eye. Unusual things happen all the time, but we?re just not always aware of them. I would rather spend seven or eight hours wandering around London and come away with one image that is slightly unusual than produce the ?bog-standard? picture within half an hour. These sorts of images illustrate the story, but not necessarily in the most interesting way.

I took this image in Brompton Cemetery near Earl?s Court in south-west London. I?d taken a short cut through the cemetery and was actually photographing some pigeons I saw drinking from a water font. I looked across and saw a gentleman sunbathing by the side of one of the gravestones. It struck me as being a completely odd thing to do.

I set the exposure before I took his picture so I was able to take the shots quickly without having to play around with my settings. With my camera set to ISO 200 my exposure was 1/5300sec at f/5.6. It was a bright day with blazing sunshine so I needed a really fast shutter speed.

I had been using a wideangle lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera so the difficulty was getting close enough to take the man?s picture without him knowing. If he?d noticed me, the moment would have been lost. If anyone had been watching I don?t know what they would have thought more strange ? the sight of the man lying in his swimming trunks sunbathing by a gravestone or a man photographing him!

I wanted to find out what the man was doing there and to make sure nothing untoward was going on. So I went to speak to him. If there had been anything dubious about the situation I wouldn?t have filed the picture. It wouldn?t have been right to take advantage of the man in this way.

The man told me he had chosen to sunbathe in the cemetery because there was no one there to give him any hassle. It was a ?peaceful place?, where he could lie all day without anyone disturbing him!

Obtaining people?s permission when you photograph them is such a grey area ? even more so now than when I took this picture a few years ago. When it comes to photographing minors (any child under the age of 16) you have to seek permission beforehand, otherwise you can get into trouble. But because this was an adult man, I took his picture first and then spoke to him. He was in a public place, so it was OK to photograph him. If the man had been in his back garden that would have been a different matter altogether. There is a fine line between photojournalism and voyeurism.

If you?re in doubt about whether to photograph someone or not, it?s generally better to ask their permission. If you are unsure about taking the picture, there?s a chance they won?t be happy with you taking it.

I wasn?t trying to make some sort of statement about human nature or life and death ? the truth is, I found the scene amusing and wanted to take a picture. The humour comes from the juxtaposition of a man lying in his Speedos next to a gravestone. It?s just a really odd scene. Sometimes you can be too deep and overanalyse an image, attributing meaning where there isn?t any. Some images are just what they are.

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

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley