It was quite a coincidence that Ian Berry should be in Belfast on the day the findings of the Saville Inquiry were made public.
Berry is one of the world’s best-known photographers, invited to join Magnum on the invitation of Henri Cartier Bresson himself.
Despite being born in England, the Lancastrian made his name working in South Africa for the Daily Mail and an African magazine called Drum.
Back in 1960, Berry was a young photographer working in South Africa when he was asked by his editor to go to Sharpeville where there was a demonstration. When he got there, Berry was unimpressed at the couple of hundred people in a run of the mill protest against the Pass Laws. He was going back to his car when suddenly the police started firing at the unarmed crowd.
Being a photographer. Ian’s first reaction was to get on the ground and start taking photographs. He kept snapping as the crowds ran towards him, some stumbling, some falling injured and dying.
“[Then] I saw the police standing on the saracens, reloading their sten guns and so I dropped down again, and the police started to shoot again. This time, they were really just shooting into the backs of people fleeing,” he recalled.
When it was over, 69 people had been killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 injured. Berry was the only photographer at the scene, but as journalists/photographers were more afraid of the police than of the blacks, the photos had to be smuggled out of South Africa to be published in Europe.
Ian was at the University of Ulster last night to show and talk about some of his startling photographs. He didn’t actually show any of the Sharpeville Massacre but others told a different story of South Africa.
A simple shot of two young boys playing on a beach and a couple walking past might not seem to have much import but the boys were black on an all-white beach. The important thing was the white couple walking by didn’t mind or didn’t notice. This everyday scene was a symbol of the new South Africa.
Berry’s photos are often stunningly beautiful in black and white or colour. They tell of his bravery in showing things as he sees them and has recently started working on photographing climate change, specifically on water.
One picture showed a pump in Bangladesh where the water is contaminated with arsenic. The signs of contamination were clear on baby’s face and her mother’s arm.
While the Lancastrian is not against a little bit of whimsy now and again, he has travelled the world, it’s most inhospitable regions – including Belfast – and come away with photographs of great beauty but each of which tell a story and has a message for us all.
It was a pity he didn’t have more time to discuss his other work – he covered Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia; conflicts in Israel, Ireland, Vietnam and the Congo and famine in Ethiopia.
He did show some photographs of a man in the Congo who was in the wrong tribal area at the wrong time and was being beaten and stoned by a crowd. The ethics of photography in such a situation violence troubled Berry but he is first and foremost a photographer and he did not intervene.
Most recently Ian was involved in a project on child slavery in Ghana where children as young as six or seven are bought from families and forced to work without pay for the country’s fishermen.
One teacher has saved some of the children but their own families who have sold them in the first place don’t want another mouth to feed at home.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to photojournalists for shedding light on issues that would otherwise be overlooked. Whether they actually change much, well, that’s a question for another day.
To see Ian’s work go to www.ianberrymagnum.com