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Award-winning photographer Kieran Doherty capture the plight of a nation

Haunting images taken by award-winning photographer Kieran Doherty, which are part of a new exhibition in Belfast, paint a vivid picture of war-torn Sudan. But his own family's experience of wartime is just as devastating. Laurence White reports.

There are not many photographers who would turn down the chance to do a photo shoot with actress Keira Knightley - but that is what Kieran Doherty decided after what he calls one of the most gruelling assignments in his life working in the world's trouble spots.

The actress was due to travel to South Sudan to highlight the work of international aid agency, Oxfam, just as Kieran was about to leave the area after three weeks' photographing refugees in the country riven by civil war.

An exhibition of his images is running for most of this month at the Linen Hall Library in central Belfast.

"I just didn't have the physical or mental energy left to stay on and photograph her. She is a terrific girl, very down to earth, and I would have loved to be able to cover her visit, but I couldn't. That had never happened to me on an assignment before", he recalls.

Kieran, (47) whose father Hugh comes from Belfast and who miraculously survived the Blitz in 1941, spent three weeks in South Sudan last year with Oxfam.

"We visited a number of camps up and down the Nile, but without doubt the one that affected me most was at Bor. There the UN had built a camp surrounded by barbed wire to offer refuge to members of the Nuer tribe. Essentially they were being guarded by UN soldiers to prevent them being massacred by an opposing tribe.

"But even there they were not safe. At one point, members of the Dinka tribe crept up to the camp, poked their rifles through the barbed wire and sprayed the tents inside, killing 70 people. That was shortly before we arrived.

"I met a little girl who had witnessed her mother, father, brothers and sisters being shot in front of her. Somehow she was uninjured and was being cared for by an aunt. It was heartbreaking.

"The dead were all buried outside the camp. This was literally in the middle of nowhere."

While some of the refugees were actually quite wealthy and there was ample food in the camp, the situation quickly reached a crisis point because there was no wood to build fires for cooking.

"There was a constant fear of further attacks but the situation got so desperate that the UN finally decided to open the gates and allow women from the camp to race out to a nearby forest clearing to gather wood.

"You then had the surreal sight of some 250-300 women - some of them wearing designer dresses - racing across the open ground, gathering up huge piles of wood, carrying them back to the camp and then running back for more," recalls Kieran, who now lives in England.

"At one stage, I was standing guard over four piles of wood so that no-one would steal them from the woman who had collected them."

Conditions in the camp were primitive with no running water or toilet facilities, although Oxfam had provided water in containers. "The camp was about the size of four football pitches and held about 15,500 refugees. We were only allowed into it because one of the elders - a camp leader - appreciated the work of Oxfam.

"He was a doctor who had worked in Canada and had made an astonishing return to save his mother from the conflict. He had spent nine days travelling just to get to the camp."

The plight of the refugees in the camp had a profound effect on Kieran. He says: "I worked for Reuters for many years and also doing commissions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and while South Sudan was a war zone, I was not doing war photography, rather capturing what it was like for those affected by war.

"In 2004, I went to Sri Lanka to photograph people who had been displaced and lost everything in that year's tsunami and the feeling I got there was similar to what I felt in Sudan. I felt helpless in many ways. I could see what the people in both areas had gone through but I was unable to help them. That strikes at your humanity in a way that simply recording war images never does."

During his visit to South Sudan he also visited a number of other camps - it is reckoned that some 1.6m people in that country have been displaced by the civil war.

"However the atmosphere in some of the other camps was completely different. Certainly people had very little but they did not feel under threat any more. There was no barbed wire or actual boundaries to those camps. They were under the control of one of the warring factions and therefore, relatively safe," he says.

He explains: "In one camp on the banks of the Nile, I remember sitting one evening as the sun was going down watching children playing by the riverside. Compared to Bor the atmosphere was almost like a holiday camp, although not the sort of holiday any of us would want to go on. Many of the children were malnourished, although Oxfam had been able to provide them with water using filtration systems to clean the water from the river. The refugees also had more substantial shelters unlike the tents at Bor, for example."

Kieran's own back story is almost as astonishing as any of the sights he witnessed on his global assignments. On April 15, 1941 on one of the worst nights of the Blitz in Belfast, Kieran's father, Hugh, then a two-year-old boy, had a miraculous escape from death.

A parachute bomb landed on his home killing Hugh's mother, May, and two sisters, Sue and Marie. His father, who was in the merchant navy, was fortunately away from home at the time.

Incredibly, Hugh was dug out of the rubble and taken to the Mater Hospital on Crumlin Road where he was later found asleep on a couch in the extern department.

No one knew who the little boy was. In fact, initially staff thought he was called Billy.

This newspaper on April 23 carried a front page story, complete with photograph of him, under the headline "Who is this boy?"

It was only when the Belfast Telegraph hit the streets that evening that relatives of Hugh realised he had survived and claimed him. Sixty years later, when this newspaper ran a special supplement marking the 60th anniversary of the Blitz, Kieran took photographs of his dad to accompany an interview with this remarkable survivor.

Although, in later life, Hugh moved to Dover, where Kieran was born, the family returned to Belfast living near Stormont.

Kieran recalls: "My dad did a lot of travelling and constantly carried a camera. I remember him taking many pictures of the family, but initially I wanted to be an artist. However, I soon discovered - when comparing my work to that of some friends who were really talented - that I just wasn't good enough.

"I still wanted to be creative and photography offered me that opportunity. I remember seeing photographs of the Northern Ireland Troubles taken by the renowned war photographer Don McCullin and they made a lasting impression on me. My first job was with the Reuters news agency where I worked until 2008. I left because I wanted to do more than just record images that were simply a snapshot of a moment in time. I wanted to tell stories."

Since then, Kieran has worked around the world and was also one of the stills photographers for the BBC's natural history epic, Human Planet. This year he won first prize in the Sports Stories category of the prestigious World Press Photo Awards. His exhibition at the Linen Hall Library of the images from South Sudan - Make Them Visible - is aimed at highlighting the lives of the refugees in that country.

Jim Clarken, chief executive of Oxfam Ireland, says: "Make Them Visible reflects just a tiny number of those who are caught up in humanitarian crises. There are more than 59.5m refugees and displaced people in the world today, the greatest number since the Second World War.

"If they set up a state it would be the 26th most populous country on the planet.

"All the people in the exhibition's photos share a story with the same beginning - a desperate flight from their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs as belongings. These are powerful and emotive images showing people in the most extreme of situations, yet remarkably revealing their dignity and their humanity."

Oxfam has been working with the European Commission and other humanitarian organisations in South Sudan for several years. The charity has provided clean water, hygiene facilities, food, income support and shelter, where possible. It has also pre-positioned aid supplies in the most remote areas, ready to provide emergency assistance to people fleeing from the conflict.

Kieran is full of praise for their work. "I was only allowed into Bor camp, for example, because the people there appreciated the work of Oxfam.

"Working with the organisation on the ground made me appreciate how incredibly professional it is. They have a whole range of experts on hand to help with their aid missions."

Today he will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Linen Hall Library about his experiences in South Sudan.

  • Make Them Visible exhibition runs at the Linen Hall Library until Saturday, November 28

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