| 9.3°C Belfast

Pulitzer Prize photographer Cathal McNaughton shares why he hasn't lifted a camera since returning to his native Glens of Antrim


Close

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in 2017

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in 2017

REUTERS

2001: the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast

2001: the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast

Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton

2020: Get Er Brewed, Randalstown

2020: Get Er Brewed, Randalstown

Snooker legend Alex Higgins

Snooker legend Alex Higgins

Photographer Cathal McNaughton

Photographer Cathal McNaughton

Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in 2017

Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Cathal McNaughton is back living in a cottage in the Glens of Antrim after pressing pause on his globetrotting career and says he hasn't owned a camera since leaving Reuters - or taken a photo that wasn't snapped on an iPhone in over a year.

But he's beginning to get the urge again, he says, and has been running a series of masterclasses for aspiring photographers in a bid to give something back.

The Cushendall photojournalist was riding high after becoming the first photographer in Ireland to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work with news agency Reuters charting the Rohinga crisis - when life threw an unexpected curveball his way.

At the time of the award, he was based in Delhi, working for Reuters as its chief photographer in India.

"I fought for the opportunity to go and photograph the Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh and I was part of a team that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for our coverage of the Rohingya crisis," he says.

Close

Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton

"It was the pinnacle of my career at that stage, but on my return from the award I was denied entry into India -and that started the next chapter of my life."

The former Belfast Telegraph and Irish News photographer had just flown back from New York, via Toronto, when he was inexplicably detained at the airport in India.

"I was at passport control, expecting to walk through and meet the driver who was waiting for me outside, but that didn't happen," he says.

"I was escorted back onto the same plane that I'd arrived on and ended up back in Toronto. It was a crazy 30 hours. I was trying to figure out what was going wrong - I thought there must be a mistake somewhere."

Eventually it emerged - thanks to a government backchannel - that he had been barred because of his work covering the region of Kashmir, for many years a warzone at the heart of an ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan.

"They didn't like the world being made aware of the situation in Kashmir," Cathal says.

"Kashmir is a part of India so it was just part of my patch that I had to cover. It's a place I had always wanted to visit and it's one of the most beautiful places on earth.

"The problem is that it's basically a war zone. But I would encourage anybody to go to it - they are some of the nicest people I've ever met.

The experience of dealing with life and death issues from a young age makes you grow up very quickly

"The last time I was there - before all this happened - I was planning to go back to do some fly fishing in the foothills of the Himalayas. That's not going to happen now."

Reuters offered him a new position in Manila, but Cathal decided it was time to draw a line and return to Ireland as his mother had become ill with Alzheimer's.

"My parents had become ill and I decided to take control of the situation, because effectively I was homeless. All my life was still in India," he says.

"I was hoping I was going back at the time - I still had a girlfriend in India, I had an apartment, all my friends, all my personal belongings were there because I'd been separated from my wife a couple of years previously.

"Some of my belongings still remain in India. But I decided to take control of the situation and go back to the Glens to spend more time with friends, my family and of course my son. I took an enforced sabbatical and it was necessary at the time. I needed to take a bit of a break."

Now 41 and dad to Dara (12), Cathal is back living in the beautiful Glens where he grew up, living close to his retired parents Eileen and Cathal, and in ways life has come full circle.

It was a fateful encounter in the Glens with former Irish News picture editor Brendan Murphy that was to set the ball rolling on his illustrious career.

At the time, Brendan was involved in a project that required him to spend two weeks photographing a chosen area - in his case, the Glens.

Cathal's dad, a woodturner by trade, was his fixer and Cathal helped out in the school holidays.

Brendan told him to call if he was interested in photography as a career - and that's how Cathal came to be a trainee at the Irish News.

"True enough, on the day I received my GCSE results I rang and asked him out of the blue and he said 'come in and see how it goes' and that was the start of it," Cathal says.

It wasn't long before he graduated onto the big stories.

"It was the tail end of the Troubles and we're talking about Drumcree, the Ormeau Road, the Omagh bomb, lots of the major terrorist events," Cathal says.

Close

2001: the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast

2001: the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast

2001: the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast

"My first real major assignment was the Omagh bomb. It was really a baptism of fire because it was such a horrific event.

"Because it was such a major event, it was all hands on deck in the Irish News. It was the aftermath that we were covering - lots of funerals and vigils that had to be covered. I was just helping out."

Other memorable assignments were the Drumcree stand-off and the Holy Cross dispute.

"I seem to remember there was a lot of trouble on the lower Shankill Road - the UDA was extremely prominent at the time and there was a lot of activity around there," Cathal says.

"I was going to loyalist paramilitary shows of strength in loyalist heartlands in the middle of the night. When you're a young Catholic from the country, it was quite an eye-opening experience.

"You would be an idiot if you weren't scared in some of those situations. But that is generally what keeps you safe -you have to be ultra-aware of your surroundings and what's happening. You develop a sixth sense when you need to get out of a situation very quickly."

The experience of dealing with life and death issues from a young age makes you grow up very quickly, Cathal says.

"I tried not to take too many silly risks, but I suppose with youth comes a certain bravado as well," he admits.

"But I always had my mentor and he used to tell me when I was being stupid or out of line - even when I left and went on and worked for other publications.

"I went from there and worked for the Belfast Telegraph where the picture editor, Gerry Fitzgerald, was very good to me as well - he acted as a mentor to me at the start of my career."

After the Belfast Telegraph, Cathal moved to Sunday Life, followed by Dublin and then London with the Press Association.

Within a year of joining PA in London, he had been named UK Press Photographer of the Year, Royal Photographer of the Year and Environmental Photographer of the Year.

After getting married to then-wife Kim and the birth of their son Dara, he moved back to Ireland to cover the region for Reuters.

Close

2020: Get Er Brewed, Randalstown

2020: Get Er Brewed, Randalstown

2020: Get Er Brewed, Randalstown

"I was sent on various international assignments around the world - it was my first time working for an international news agency," he says.

"That's when I felt my photography moved to another level, because day to day I was working with people who I would have had an awful lot of admiration and respect for and I was wanting to emulate some of the work they were doing.

"From there, a posting came up in India to become the chief photographer for Reuters and that was an amazing time, heading to India."

Nothing can prepare you for India, he says, describing it as an assault on the senses.

"India can be the most beautiful country in the world and the worst place you've ever visited," he says.

Memorable assignments included visits to the Himalayas and Bhutan, but the Rohingya genocide was the story that will stay with him forever.

"It's one of the most horrible things imaginable, hundreds of thousands of people leaving everything they own in another country and every single one of those people has experienced something horrific," he says.

"It permeates the whole atmosphere of the place as well. It's almost like a cloud hangs over the place where they were.

Close

Snooker legend Alex Higgins

Snooker legend Alex Higgins

Snooker legend Alex Higgins

"But it's very necessary to be there to show the world what is happening. If a regime has their own way, nobody will know what's happening. If it wasn't for journalists and photographers, the world wouldn't know what was going on.

"I spent two weeks there and it's a full-on two weeks where you're working round the clock. It was the end of the monsoon season and it was extremely warm and humid - you can imagine what the sanitation was like. Every single one of us wanted to stay longer, but Reuters made sure every one of us only stayed for two weeks."

He admits that one of the reasons for the career break was the toll that such assignments were exacting.

"The thing about my job is that you see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity all the time - and quite often it is the worst of humanity," Cathal says.

"When you are exposed to that on a regular basis it can't help but affect you," he adds.

There were some major news events around the world that I'd love to have been covering but I did step away from it for a while

"I recognised the toll it was taking on me and I decided I needed to step back for a little while and decompress, which I am still doing. It's not something you do once - it's something you have to be aware of all the time and I'll probably be doing it for the rest of my life," he says.

"These things can manifest in a variety of ways through different people. They can affect your mood, they can make you depressed, you can have anxiety - that's probably how it affected me.

"It can affect the mood of people around you as well. If your mood is changeable, it's not easy for other people to live around.

"Once you're in the middle of this, you don't really see it.

"It's only when you step back that you see these things."

Cathal admits it was strange going from editing hundreds of pictures a day to nothing.

"It's quite a challenge - at the start very much so, but I stopped looking at the news for a while and took a break because it wasn't helping at all," he says.

"There were some major news events around the world that I'd love to have been covering but I did step away from it for a while. I handed back my camera to Reuters and I haven't taken a photograph that's not on an iPhone for over a year.

"At the minute I am still down in the Glens, I have a dog and I'm now starting to give masterclasses that I've got up and running. I spend time with my parents and I live in a beautiful cottage in the Glens.

"Anyone that comes up the lane is going to my house - the next step after my house is the mountain."

Cathal often says being a photojournalist is all about taking away - "taking their photographs, taking up their time, but I think it would be nice to give something back".

Lately he's been giving talks about his experience of working with Reuters and the psychological and emotional impacts of working in war zones. He's also been working with community groups, teaching aspiring photographers by mentoring them on real-world assignments.

Close

Photographer Cathal McNaughton

Photographer Cathal McNaughton

Photographer Cathal McNaughton

"The people we are photographing have their stories to tell and it gives them the opportunity to do so. The stories will be related to the public through exhibitions or through local press, and I would like to build it up into a more international thing," he says.

"Belfast used to be synonymous with photojournalism round the world - great photographers around the world always mention doing their time in Northern Ireland. I would like to bring some of that back and create an environment for international people to come and learn in Belfast, which has such a real history of photography."

  • Cathal McNaughton's solo exhibition, Rohingya, runs at Belfast Exposed gallery, 23 Donegall Street, Belfast, until March 21
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph