Award-winning Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years’ experience covering conflicts and 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 during the annual Orange Order Parade on 12 July 2012. The Orange Order is a Protestant organisation and every year parades are held across Northern Ireland to mark the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The image was taken in Ardoyne in north Belfast, which is a Catholic area, and people were protesting about the Orangemen who were marching by. The protests can turn violent as they did on this occasion. The riot police had to use water cannon to control the situation. I’ve covered the Twelfth of July parades for about 16 years now. There has been trouble at this particular interface for the past few years – it’s a date I can mark in my diary where I know there is probably going to be trouble. I was there with other members of the media knowing civil unrest might occur.

For an event like this you have to get there early in the morning, at around 7am, to park your car in a safe place and get into position before the police cordon off the roads. It was then a case of waiting to see how events would unfold during the day. There is always some sort of scuffle, but it depends whether these escalate into something more serious, like people burning cars or throwing stones, petrol bombs and other missiles.

There had been trouble leading up to the incident depicted here. Some of the protesters had hijacked a vehicle and set it on fire. This person had run up to the police line with a large rock and hurled it at the police. One of the policemen broke rank and tried to catch him. I climbed up onto a nearby wall and was balancing at the same time as photographing. I made sure I was shooting from a safe vantage point so I didn’t become a target myself. Personal safety comes first when photographing an event like this – the story isn’t worth putting your life in danger.

Reading the situation and the atmosphere is paramount. You always have to be alert and aware of what’s going on. Lines can move and areas where you could stand before are suddenly unsafe. You can feel the tension in the air. It’s a bit like when there is a thunderstorm coming – you can sense the atmosphere changing. It’s a strange feeling.

There is no right or wrong place to stand – you have to judge each situation as you encounter it. Commonsense comes into play as, for example, you want to avoid being isolated among the demonstrators. There used to be a sort of unwritten code of conduct among rioters in Northern Ireland and across the world in general towards the media. Pressmen and women would be seen as a no-go target, but this has gone out of the window and the press have become legitimate targets.
It is more dangerous [to photograph in certain areas] now.

You can’t have any preconceived notions about the kind of pictures you might take. Sometimes you will be waiting for hours and nothing will happen, but action can flare up very quickly and be over in a matter of seconds. All you can do is be ready for whatever unfolds.

I’ll generally have two cameras with me – one with a 70-200mm lens and the other with a wider lens, maybe a 16-35mm or a 24-70mm lens. I used a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV for this shot. There is a lot of running around so you can’t carry lots of heavy lenses. There also isn’t time to change lenses. I’ll have my laptop in my backpack, so I can file the images to the news agency and anything else I might need while shooting, such as warm clothes. Events can last well into the night, and while it may be sunny in the morning it could be freezing by the early hours of the next day. Since events move quickly and people are constantly moving, you need to shoot at as fast a shutter speed as you can. I was shooting at around 1/2000sec.

When there is a lull in the disturbances you have to judge whether you file the pictures you already have or wait until you have taken other pictures that [may better show what’s going on]. I’ll try to find a safe place, usually a doorway, to file the pictures but you have to be vigilant – if the disturbances move you don’t want to be caught up in the middle of the riot.

As a press photographer, your role is to convey the drama of what is happening in front of you – the story on the day. There is no point coming back with a nice, beautifully lit picture and not an image of the policeman who has been set on fire, for example, because the policeman will be ‘the picture’. If you’re working for a news agency the ‘news picture’ always has to come first. You can take ‘feature’ pictures, too, but a strong news picture is always going to beat a feature-style picture onto the news pages the next day.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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