Photo Insight – Cathal McNaughton – British Army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
June 2, 2011
Cathal McNaughton explains how, when photographing with the British Army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, he experimented with unusual shooting angles to create images that hadn?t been seen before
Award-winning Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years? experience covering conflicts and breaking news for national newspapers and international press agencies. He shares his best press photographs and reveals how he captures a subject in ways that others haven?t seen
I took this image in the grounds of a tribal leader?s house in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. One of the tribal leaders had made an announcement, a sort of amnesty, asking people to hand in their weapons in a bid to remove munitions from circulation in Afghanistan. The event turned into a sort of photo call for the assembled media ? you could say it was a PR stunt by the tribal leaders. There was almost a party atmosphere, as people from the local tribes had met up and were talking and eating. It was quite strange to see all these people looking totally at ease with the munitions. All the weapons that had been brought in were either broken or obsolete.
If you look closely you can see that some in the foreground are damaged. Some looked as though they had been buried in the ground years ago and had been dug up and brought there. It was a bit of a show ? an attempt to show the UN forces that the tribes were cooperating. If the assembled media suspected that this was a PR stunt, no one was willing to say anything. It was a little like The Emperor?s New Clothes story by Hans Christian Andersen ? people went along with it. This was a ?hearts and minds? story, and there aren?t many positive stories coming out of Afghanistan. It was a little too organised for my liking, but this is only my opinion. It is up to the viewer to make up his or her own mind about the picture.
I had been with the British Army for a few days, photographing what they were doing in Afghanistan and how they were operating. We had been visiting the different leaders in the outland regions of Helmand in a more ?relaxed? environment ? getting out into the community and meeting people on a one-to-one basis. We were travelling in convoy and it had taken several hours to drive to this weapons amnesty. On the way, one of our Land Rovers broke down and we had to abandon the vehicle. It was too dangerous to hang around and try to fix it, so we kept on going.
At the arms ?amnesty? we had a free rein to photograph whatever we wanted. It wasn?t an impromptu event, as we knew about it in advance, so there was a bit more time than usual to think about composition. That said, I was careful not to be too contrived in the way I composed the image.
There?s a certain abstract quality to the picture. At first glance it is hard to tell what the image is showing because of the unusual angle from which you?re looking at it. On closer inspection you start to pick out the barrels of the guns and realise what the image is. I took other pictures of the weapons from angles you?d immediately recognise so you could tell what the images were, but sometimes it?s good to try to make the image more abstract ? it makes the viewer think a little longer and harder about what it is they?re looking at. This image was one of several I filed from the event. I was trying to show the vast quantity of munitions that were allegedly being pulled from circulation.
You can see from the clothes and headgear of the people in the background that this is most likely to be the Middle East. I had to wait a few seconds for the people to move to where I wanted them to be. Although they are out of focus, their outlines are clear. They are a very important piece of the photograph because they place where the picture was taken. From a photojournalistic point of view this is extremely important. Conveying a sense of place is a crucial part of the story. Without the people in the image, these weapons could have been anywhere in the world.
I used a 16-35mm lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera and was shooting at the widest point of the lens. I wanted to get as close as I could to the machine guns and to fill the frame with as many weapons as possible. Using the wideangle lens also added to the abstract nature of the image by giving an unusual perspective. Very few people are ever going to be that close to the barrels of so many guns.
I used autofocus to focus on the weapons in the foreground. I?ll use perhaps manual focus in difficult lighting conditions, but I?m a great advocate of using autofocus. It allows me to concentrate on the composition and exposure.
The most important thing about this picture is the use of depth of field. I was shooting relatively wide open at f/5.6. I wanted the main focus to be the weapons in the foreground and I didn?t want the people in the background to be too overpowering. However, I didn?t want the background to be so out of focus that the viewer couldn?t tell what it was. Consequently, I opted for f/5.6, which was a good compromise.
There are so many photographs out there that you?re always looking for new ways to photograph things ? to make people stop and look at your image, to understand what you?re trying to do or say. I was working for a wire news agency at the time, so the image would have been distributed across the world.
In a way, there is almost something quite prophetic about the picture. Many of these weapons were relics from a previous conflict and perhaps serve as a reminder that things aren?t over yet. Afghanistan is a story that is continually developing and we?ve yet to discover what the final outcome will be.
Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley
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