Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton

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

This image of John McCarter, reading by a window, is part of a series of photographs. You can see more of the pictures on the blog on my website. John is in his late 70s and has been living without mains electricity at his home at Downhill, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for nearly 30 years. It seems incredible that a pensioner who lives so close to the prosperous Causeway Coast tourist area lives in such basic conditions. He has a gas cooker, but no fridge, and reads by candlelight during the long winter evenings. John is an incredibly healthy, fit man for his age, but the freezing winter temperatures he is living in are starting to take their toll.

I’d read about John in the local newspaper and the story appealed to me, so I was keen to talk to him. I located his house, knocked on the door and got chatting.

John told me that when he first moved into the house many years ago there was no electricity, but that he didn’t mind because the simple way of life appealed to him. However, now he feels differently. Every day is a struggle for him – from the moment he gets up to the moment he goes to bed. The house stands in the shadow of a large cliff that rises above it and for long periods of the year John doesn’t see much of the sun because of where the house is positioned. He explained that he has been involved in a drawn-out dispute with his landlord about connecting the property to mains electricity. The mains supply is just at the end of his garden, but while the dispute continues John remains without electricity, relying instead on coal fires and candles. I spent a couple of days with him to see how he copes, arriving early in the morning to make use of the available light.

John is the perfect host and I couldn’t have felt more welcome than when I arrived at his modest wooden home. I got to know him quite well over the time I spent with him, which was a period of a few weeks. I wanted to photograph his story as honestly, simply and as sympathetically as possible – to convey a sense of what it was like living in those conditions. I photographed both inside and outside the house to give a sense of the surroundings, to show how isolated John was, which was also an important part of the story.

I started by spending time with John so I could get to know him a little and get a feel for where he was living. The pictures then come more naturally. It’s vital to build a sense of trust with your subject for a project like this – you wouldn’t get past the door otherwise. I think it’s important to be honest about what you’re trying to do. Some photographers might be slightly dishonest and say what they need to say to get the pictures they want, but I think you come away with an incomplete picture if you do this because you’re forced to work in a rush in case you are ‘found out.’ If you take time to develop a sense of trust, you have a better chance of capturing the subtle nuances and atmosphere that complete the story.

I love getting to know a person and photographing them over a period of time. My heart lies in this type of photography – it’s where I’m most comfortable. When you’re working to a deadline on news assignments you don’t have time to build a rapport with a person and you might have to take pictures in a hurry, but with a longer project you have time to think about what shooting angle works best, the composition and so on. You can even come back at a later date to take the picture if the light isn’t right.

The reason John is sitting here is so he can use the light to read. If I hadn’t taken the time to get to know him he might not have felt comfortable enough to be himself with me while I took photographs. In the end, I was able to blend into the house and he could just go about his business. Moments like these make the most special pictures.

When I took this picture I was actually in an adjacent room, which meant that I wasn’t interfering with the scene. The house is quite unusual in that it has a small window in one of the partitioned walls to allow what little light there is through to the rest of the house. I was able to frame John within the two windows. The house was so small inside that I had to use a wideangle lens to show the interior effectively. I was shooting using available light in a house without electricity that was very dark to begin with. I took this image using a 16-35mm lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and I was shooting at approximately 1/60sec at f/2.8 using ISO 1600. I took each shot slowly and carefully to make sure the images were sharp. To have the opportunity to shoot a story like this, where you can perhaps put a little bit of your heart and soul into the pictures, is one of the reasons why I love photography.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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