Belfast Telegraph

Belfast, 1969: a time of rising tension, but I will never forget the warmth of the people

Top news photographer David Lewis was sent to Belfast in 1969 and captured a snapshot of life in the early days of the Troubles. His images have now been published in a major new book on life in the 1960s

David Lewis remembers crossing the Irish Sea to visit Belfast as a fresh-faced, fashionably bearded photojournalist way back in 1969. Born in France but raised in England, he had only just started working on Fleet Street - the epicentre of print journalism in the UK - at the time and was suitably "daunted" at the prospect of landing on pastures green.

Employed by a French lifestyle magazine to document the lives of Catholic and Protestant children in Belfast, amid civil rights demonstrations at Queen's University and after clashes between unionists and residents in Derry's Bogside, Lewis arrived in the city ready for anything.

His camera bag bulging with equipment and his head spinning, what he found, however, was a "welcoming" city populated by "friendly" people wherever he went - Belfast had yet to be truly torn asunder and the famous black humour of its inhabitants was evident in every enclave on to which Lewis trained his lens.

"I was excited by the prospect of working in Belfast," admits the 75-year-old. "I had never visited before but knew it to be a great city with a wonderful and exciting history. I also knew, from talking to Ulster-based colleagues, that Belfast was a warm place to be, despite its obvious difficulties.

"Indeed, during my entire first visit there in September 1969, I encountered only friendliness, cooperation and a genuine interest in people putting their stories and experiences across.

"I had been in Ireland before - my grandmother, although born in India, came from an Anglo-Irish family from Co Clare - but Belfast was different.

"Bear in mind, I was not a hard news press photographer looking to cover 'battle, murder and sudden death', but rather to explore the lives of those I met.

"I divided my time equally between the two communities and made many friends on both sides."

The Troubles had not yet fully "kicked off" in earnest, according to Lewis, though there were rumblings of discontent in Belfast, Derry and the many divided towns and villages in-between.

"Nevertheless, news was beginning to spread far and wide of rising tensions, and media outlets from countries all around the world had descended on Belfast to take a closer look," he says.

"At the time, there was no British military presence in the city," Lewis adds, "and so the situation was very different to what I found on subsequent visits, as a level of antagonism between the two great nations increased.

"Initially, my presence was accepted, but as time passed, attitudes started to harden somewhat."

Lewis's Parisian employers had commissioned an impartial spread, revealing the realities of life in Belfast from a child's-eye view, and Lewis found plenty of interesting urban vistas and eye-catching childish scenes to capture on film.

He recalls some of his favourite images from that time.

"One of the most heart-warming experiences for me during that first visit to Belfast was discovering the joy, enthusiasm and energy of the young people I met there," Lewis recalls.

"On the Falls Road, for example, I photographed a group of happy, smiling, excited youngsters clamouring to have their photograph taken. Although they lived in a deprived part of Belfast, they were all neatly dressed, polite and friendly.

"After living in London, one of the things that surprised me about Belfast was how empty the streets were. It meant that the city became a playground for children, who used the streets to their full effect, with boys playing ball games and girls using lampposts as improvised playthings.

"Another thing I was drawn to, more especially in the Catholic areas, was the amount of republican graffiti scrawled on almost every wall and doorway.

"On the other side of the divide, there appeared to be less unofficial street art, although even in 1969 the sides of many houses were covered with murals depicting William of Orange."

Many of the photographs that Lewis took in Belfast in 1969 feature in a newly published book, The Way It Was: A Photographic Journey Through 60s Britain. It comprises over 200 black and white pictures taken during that tumultuous, culturally exhilarating period when Lewis worked for many well-known magazines, including Life, Paris Match and Stern.

"I have tried to cover the whole expanse of the changes that were taking place across the UK from the '60s onwards," Lewis says.

"I have features on the building of Concorde and the QE2 and pictures showing our well-known love of exotic animals - for example, a woman who hand-reared a baby elephant in her front room.

"I also have a section on what I term off-beat Brits, including a couple who ran a vast model railway, set to the 1948 timetable, and an artist who had been associated with the Goon Show who wore a spacesuit around the house and slept in a pod."

If his book reveals some of the eccentricities of the period, it also features well-known names and faces.

During an eventful career, Lewis was also fortunate enough to work with the biggest cultural influencers of the time: The Beatles.

"My preferred subjects were people living ordinary lives but I did get to photograph celebrities from time to time," he says. "Once I spent the day with the American actor Telly Savalas, who played Kojak, for Life magazine. He was a most charming man.

"I spent time with the Beatles too and worked on films like Zeppelin, Dr No, Oh What a Lovely War - where I translated for the beautiful French star - and I also worked on television programmes, such as the Thunderbirds series. It was an amazing time."

As a child, Lewis developed a fascination for biology and dissection. He would collect hearts, brains and kidneys from the local butcher and slice them up at home. When his parents bought him a camera, however, he was hooked.

Having signed up for a science-based degree at medical school, Lewis dropped out after reading street photographer James Jarche's book People I Have Shot.

He spent the next two years studying for a diploma in photography at the Polytechnic of Central London.

"I admired the photographers working in Vietnam at that time, especially the veteran war photographer Robert Capa, who had taken part in the D-Day landings, Larry Burrows, who was killed in a helicopter crash, and Bert Hardy, who worked for the Picture Post and did some fantastic work covering the Korean War."

In Northern Ireland, Lewis perhaps drew on his heroes' wartime experiences when he was unceremoniously taken aside for questioning by a group of burly Belfast men in balaclavas.

"I had been working in the more deprived areas for some weeks and was becoming very well known," Lewis recalls.

"The men were carrying clubs of various descriptions and they wanted to interrogate me about who I was and what I was doing. I showed them my press credentials but that seemed to have little impact and I became somewhat concerned about their intentions towards me.

"However, when I mentioned the name of Jim Ryan - a GP and member of the IRA during the 1920s, whom I had met some weeks earlier - and they telephoned him, the atmosphere became far more friendly and they let me go on my way."

With the Troubles raging during later visits to Belfast, Lewis - like many members of the media in the 1960s, '70s and '80s - was privy to some of the more gruesome aspects of Belfast living.

He remembers a particularly tragic episode that ultimately led to him giving up photography altogether.

"Belfast was an extremely dangerous place to be back then. On one occasion, I had arranged to meet a Catholic couple with a teenage daughter who ran a pub in the city frequented by regulars of both religions," he says.

"I was delayed by a couple of hours and when I finally arrived for my meeting, I found that the pub had been totally destroyed by a bomb and the landlord, his wife and daughter had all been among those killed. Over the years, the burden of what I'd seen and the friends I lost did have a severe psychological impact on my desire to continue in that line of work.

"That, combined with some of my experiences in the Middle East, led me to abandon journalism in the late '70s."

Lewis returned to university, where he obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology "so that I could try to understand and possibly help people come to terms with some of the traumatic experiences they had gone through in their lives".

He subsequently returned to Belfast many times in the 1990s to give lectures as a neuroscientist but is happy to have inadvertently discovered his historical pictures of Belfast after a photographic society in his native East Sussex - where he lives with his partner, Steve - requested that he deliver a talk.

"Belfast has changed beyond all recognition," Lewis says of the city that has risen from the ashes of the Troubles.

"It is now a wonderfully cosmopolitan, exciting and vibrant city despite the sad reminders in some places of the long ago conflicts.

"One thing that has not changed over the past half century, however, is the humour and companionship of the people I meet. I'll always love that about Belfast."

Do you appear in one of David's photos? If so, contact our news desk on 028 9026 4440 or email newseditor@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

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