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

I took this image in an area of north Dublin called Ballymun, near Dublin Airport. The high-rise blocks of flats were made famous by the 1991 film The Commitments, a film based on the book of the same name by Roddy Doyle. It’s quite an impoverished area and there are a lot of social problems, such as unemployment. The people find an escape by keeping horses. It’s a very interesting area, but quite rundown and is now undergoing a certain amount of regeneration.

I was illustrating a story on the economic hardships within the Republic of Ireland. The story has been ongoing for a couple of years now, but it has really come to the fore over the past year. On this occasion I had been photographing for two or three weeks straight, and had illustrated the story every way I could. The newspapers were growing tired of images of euro signs and the exteriors of banks, so my aim was to create something different – an image that could represent the difficulties anywhere in the country.

I thought that a good place to go would be one of the areas that had been hit hardest by the economic crisis – or to put it another way, a place that would best show the effects of the social and economic hardship. The Ballymun flats are one of those areas. The children tether their horses on the common ground and sometimes race or trade the horses, or ride them bareback around the estate. Of course, there are rules and regulations, but the horses are the least of the police forces’ problems as there are far greater issues they have to deal with.

I don’t want to make it sound as though it’s really dangerous to take pictures in this area because the people are extremely friendly, and once you explain what you’re doing they’re very happy to oblige. It’s about establishing a trust and understanding, but just as in any city you can’t wander around too freely with your cameras on display. You don’t want to advertise that you have expensive camera gear on your person. It’s unlikely that anything would happen to you, but by walking around mindlessly you’re taking unnecessary risks.

I was driving around the area and spotted the horses on their own so I photographed them from a few different angles. The images were nice, but I knew the picture wasn’t quite there – all the elements weren’t quite in place. I waited for a few minutes and eventually a young lad came out of one of the flats to move his horse to an area where there was more grass for it to graze on. The boy wasn’t fazed by my being there – he actually enjoyed being photographed because it made him the centre of attention.

Once you have your camera out, people become aware of you very quickly. The boy’s friends were looking on and there were people hanging out from the block of flats behind. I had to build up a rapport with the young lad very quickly and establish that I was there purely for aesthetic reasons rather than to garner information, for example.

In terms of how best to handle photographing in a situation like this, there is no set approach – every situation is different. A lot of the time it is best to tell people what you’re doing and not to hide the fact that you’re taking pictures. If you do, you can look even more suspicious. The trick is not to get your camera out until just before you’re about to take the picture and not to hang around too long. Make it obvious you want to take the picture, be polite and courteous, and then leave.

The horses themselves created an interesting focus point with the flats in the background. I was kneeling down to take this picture. I had to kneel down in order to capture as much of the horse silhouetted against the building as possible. If I had been standing up to take the picture, you wouldn’t have seen the entire horse – its legs would have disappeared into the shadow in the foreground.

I was using my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with a 24-70mm lens. A lot of photographers create silhouettes in their images by shooting into the sun or using filters, but this was a natural silhouette. The horse and the young boy are in the shadow of another big high-rise block, while the sun is hitting the block behind them. This casts their shadow onto the block of flats you see in the picture.

The horse and boy are very one-dimensional and look almost flat. I had waited for the horse to move its head and the young boy to move his hands, otherwise the viewer wouldn’t have been able to distinguish what the picture is showing. You probably could have made out that it was a horse, but the shape would have looked awkward.

I particularly like this image because although it is one-dimensional, you can see the swish of the horse’s tail and mane. This gives an element of life to the picture that isn’t always in silhouette images – they can look quite static sometimes. You can also see some of the detail of the boy’s shoes. This proves that it is a real silhouette. If I had used Levels in Photoshop to create the silhouette, for example, everything would have gone completely black. It’s important to have some detail because it gives the viewer information about what they are seeing.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

To see more of Cathal or to book a place on one of his workshops visit