The Disappeared

December 10, 2014

Crossmaglen, United Kingdom

By Cathal McNaughton

I’ve been aware of the story of the “Disappeared” most of my life. In fact, I grew up with it.

While I’ve covered some pretty horrific stories in Northern Ireland over the years – I’ve been to murder scenes and I’ve heard gruesome things – shooting this story affected me more than many of the things I’ve seen.

A memorial for Brian McKinney is seen at the site where his body was discovered at Colgagh bog, Inniskeen

The families of the 18 people who went missing during the Troubles in the 1970s and 80s have been interviewed or photographed many times before, and while they’re very helpful there are certain pictures they’re willing to have taken.

I knew that if I wanted to go into more detail, I had to get to know them a little better, so I arranged meetings with them through one of the trauma centers. I wanted to spend some time breaking down barriers and explain what I planned to do.

Anna McShane stands at the location where her father Charlie Armstrong's remains were discovered in County Monaghan

I was surprised at the access they gave me – I was told I was among the first people to hear some of these stories and to see some of the belongings. It was an amazing privilege.

Many hours were spent thinking about how I wanted to illustrate this story – there had to be some sort of theme or symmetry. The pictures can’t be disjointed even though they should be able to stand on their own.

A pair of glasses which were discovered in Seamus Ruddy's Paris apartment after he went missing are displayed in his sister Anne Morgan's house in Newry, County Down

People may ask: “Why has he photographed a pair of glasses or running shoes?” Well, it forces the viewer to read the caption and once they do that, the picture takes on a stronger meaning.

Photographing Margaret McKinney stroking the running shoes her 22-year-old son Brian was wearing when he disappeared on May 25, 1978, the soil still ingrained in their soles, as she broke down at his graveside is something that will remain with me.

Margaret McKinney holds a running shoe, which her son Brian was wearing when his body was found, as she stands by his grave in Milltown cemetery in West Belfast

It struck me how the suffering and heartache endured, in some cases, over 30 years later.

With that in mind, I was careful to respect the people I was photographing, to not abuse their trust and to do the story justice. There is such a weight of responsibility that comes with being a photojournalist.

 

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