Erik Schnackenberg spoke tonight at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York about the pictures he took in the 1960s in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
He worked on Madison Avenue in New York City and every so often went to the world's trouble spots to get an adrenalin rush and to see if his pictures could bring the reality out to the world.
The British soldiers were in the streets when he got there. The British soldiers were initially welcomed by the Catholics and Protestants because they were supposed to be stay between the groups and create peace. Unfortunately, the British bonded with the Protestants, as the soldiers and commanders were Protestants and believed Ireland should be in union with the British government.
The British used film, before computers were commonplace, to document who was where. If a person showed up a lot in many shots, they'd go "snatch" that person for questioning.
The soldiers didn't like Erik taking pictures because the IRA and such had taken pictures of soldiers, then used the picture to ID a soldier dressed in civilian clothes at a pub for attack. So often in Erik's pictures a soldier is taking a picture of Erik taking a picture!
You really should go see the exhibit, but two pictures stand out in my mind:
1) a picture of a 16 year old boy being led down the street for questioning: He'd been following the soldiers too closely, so the soldiers turned on him and arrested him. To be fair, some of the soldiers were only a little older than the boy and soldiers had been attacked by boys before. But in this picture the soldiers are carrying guns with live ammo, surrounding and leading this kid down the street, and a mom with two small girls is walking past them coming toward the camera. The mom and even the girls are looking straight ahead, minding their own business, so to speak. That's what every individual in that society learned to do in public - not get involved.
This reminded me how Pat, one of the leaders of our mission trips saw a change in Belfast in 2009 and another in 2010.
In 2009, nine years after the Easter Peace Accords, people on the street started responding when she said, "Hello!" when she was passing them on the street. Prior to that, her greetings were not responded to. The passersby would stare straight ahead and not answer.
In 2010, we all noticed children were being allowed to walk home from school. Pat told us, in prior years, parents would always come to the school in their cars to pick the children up. They didn't feel the streets were safe for children.
2) a picture of a shopkeeper removing a picture of a Saint from a storefront strewn with shattered glass: the Royal Ulster Constabulary (local police of that time) had let Protestant youths smash the storefront and ransack the place, while the RUC laughed. The shopkeeper came to his store to rescue what he could.
Another interesting thing was what the first "murals" looked like. They were walls with crude paintings of symbols for one side or the other. Sometimes the two side would paint over each other's graffiti in succession.
Erik's pictures were sometimes in the New York Times back in the day. He took a lot of risks getting them. Without them, I don't know how we would imagine what went on.
Call (518) 427-1916 for hours and go see them yourself at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York, USA.