The price of seeing

Gary Lennon on the work of Cathal McNaughton and I Dream In Photos

by Jennie Kermode

I Dream In Photos
I Dream In Photos Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

Screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon’s documentary I Dream In Photos is a portrait of photojournalist Cathal McNaughton, who won a pultizer Prize for his work and then found his life falling apart because suddenly India, where he had been based, knew who he was and was hesitant to let him back in. Retreating to Ireland, he was suddenly hit by the traumatising effect of the things he’d seen among some of the world’s most desperate people. Unbeknownst to Ollie and Gary, working on the film would give him what he needed to start processing this and getting back on his feet.

The filmmakers and I had met before, when their documentary Castro’s Spies screened in Glasgow – something Gary, joining me alone on this occasion, remembers fondly

“It was brilliant,” he recalls. “Glasgow is twinned with Havana and we had this amazing reception when we played. There's a real interest in Cuba so we had this wonderful reception to the film. It's wonderful to get back as well. There is this natural connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Hands across the water. And quite similar people and personalities as well. And this story is a very human story.”

I tell him that I found this film interesting in part because, in my own work as a journalist, I’ve encountered some traumatic situations, though obviously nothing like as distressing as some of those that Cathal had to deal with. A lot of us do – and yet, within the profession, we rarely talk about it.

“I remember there's one particular scene where we have the Rohingya people,” he says. “There was a scene that we were editing around that, aand over a period of a week or two, myself and the editor noticed that were absorbing it. And we looked at each other. We had this really lovely relationship. We've known each other for a long time, but I found myself being very glum and monosyllabic in my interaction with her. And then we realised that the material was really bearing down at us. And this was from the comfort of our homes. You know, in our nice offices and edit suite. I can only imagine what it's like if you're in the field and seeing that every single day.

“A big part of this story is that Cathal thought he wasn't affected by this stuff. You hear stories of a war photographer who is an alcoholic or uses drugs or has multiple marriages, and their relationship history is just a wrecking ball. And he didn't think he was like that. Not that he thought it was better, but he just thought he wasn't affected by it. But then, as we show in the film, he absolutely was. It all came crashing down very quickly, rather than step by step, which it did for some of his peers.”

It seems to me like it was one of those situations where once one is in a safe space the brain decides it’s time to process the trauma that’s been blocking out, and everything hits at once.

“Yeah, that's it exactly. He thought he was fine and he left Ireland, left his marriage, left his bond, which was a massive thing to do, you know. And then he was in this job where he was working on adrenaline the whole time. The head of Reuters India, but it was also the Indian subcontinent. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar. And he thought he was fine. And then he goes to New York. He gets the Pulitzer prize. And he isn't let back in to India.

“Whatever security he had from his home in India – he had a relationship there – was all just washed away from him. And at the same time, his parents got sick, one after the other, and his life became what we showed in the film, and he was unable to continue. Even though the place he was working for offered him other alternatives, he just wasn't able to continue. So he went back to living in this small fisherman's cottage overlooking the sea, staring at Scotland every day. He just went there like an animal, to heal.”

So how do you tell a story like that and get the level of intimacy, and be ethical about it and protect the subject when you're doing it?

“Yeah, it's tricky, and I think it was made more difficult from the fact that were in Covid when we started, and we weren't able to just spend physical time together, to hang out together. So my initial approach to the film was more focusing on his work, more than this story. Just talking about the work, he was fine.

“We had an interview for one hour every day for a month. We would start at 12 and we finished at one, irrespective of what was happening in the interview. From that, I got a window into his approach to his art and into his photography. I feel that by doing that, it allowed him to feel a little bit more comfortable talking to me about not just the work. Like the onion, you know, you peel back a little bit and a little bit more, and he opened up a little bit more.”

He made a cut of the film at this stage, he says, but it didn’t quite feel right. But at the same time, Cathal was changing, going on a journey.

“He has said in Q&A's that part of the journey was by doing this documentary. By me asking him these questions, it allowed him to change, realising that actually he wasn't okay. He had actually been addicted to this way of life. Although it's not an addiction like gambling or drugs, it still is an addiction with a lot of downsides. And ethically, you've got a massive responsibility as a filmmaker to people you're working with on camera.

“I'm blessed that the he feels this way now, that he feels that this has been a real catalyst for his mental health and his general well being and his ability to go back into the workforce. We took lots of advice from experts in this area, and we offered counseling for him as well. So we really acted to the best of our ethical ability. I'm really happy that it was actually this huge therapeutic feeling for him. And he actually got a lot out of it. I have to confess, I didn't expect that. I'm not a therapist, but this was a very welcome benefit for all of us.

“I think the difference in what he told me in the latter part of the film and what he told me at the start, it's just night and day in terms of his openness. At first he was still very much presenting himself as a Pulitzer Prize photographer with no problems in the world. It was very brave of him and to be able to open up to the extent that actually, no, he had been damaged and he needs to heal. And this journey is starting now. I saw with great pride the work he did in Ukraine recently. He’s a rare talent. I look forward to seeing his work in the future.”

This is all the more important, I suggest, because there's so much fake news out there and so many fake images now – something Cathal alludes to in the film. A Pulitzer Prize at least lets the public know that somebody’s work can be trusted.

He nods. “The way he would say to me is that he has spent 20 or 25 years of his life being trained, learning on the ground how to do these things. And anyone can walk in with a phone and post to Instagram. That’s a universe away from what he does. And the side effects are what you described there. You know, seeing images presented in a way which does not have the ethical integrity that he has.

“A lot of people can take nice photos. The equipment is so much better than what it used to be. You can just point and shoot. It's not as hard as it used to be, but a photojournalist conveying ethically what the story should be, telling these stories of people that are in places of trauma and bringing that story into places like where I live, where you live, it's very important. It's particularly focused, at this point, on Ukraine, Gaza and South Sudan. In examples like this around the world, the role of a photojournalist is needed more than ever. And they're being hammered in terms of the budgets. Like all traditional media, they're all struggling.”

I tell him that I also like what Cathal says in the film about the importance of capturing photos that have some movement and action in them, because it's important to have photos that don’t just look good, but that tell stories.

“I have that photo on my wall, the one that he describes when he talks about movement,” Gary says. “When you do it well, a 2D image becomes 3D, and it is a lovely way of capturing what a lot of us would look at a in photo and know we like, when we aren't able to describe why we like it. I think he pulled that together really nicely and that's what he was going for in a lot of his photos. When he really nails it, it has this energy and you can almost see the next frames after it in your mind's eye. And he has that ability to do that with just a single frame.”

Did Cathal’s style affect the framing of the film?

“He has something like 8000, maybe more, registered photos at different agency libraries and things like that,” he says. So it's a vast archive, but as you go through it, you do start to see a style. When he went to India, I really felt he was at the top of his game, and you could see this style where it's almost like how jazz musicians can play the wrong note because they know how to play the right note.

“He centre frames a lot of his characters and in photography 101, you're told never to do that – but he knows how to do it with some of his most powerful photos. If I could give one example, this lady who's in the refugee camp and she's holding her baby, that shouldn't work, but it does. It works at so many different levels.

“At certain points, we tried to replicate what a Cathal McNaughton photo would look like by having him at the centre frame, having him as the fisherman in the centre, having him standing in front of his house. So we did subtly try and blend that into the film. We didn't slavishly do it as a style because we thought it was a little contrived, to be honest. I felt it was more style over substance to do that, and I decided to go with just a classical style of interview setups.

“I really enjoyed the mixture of vérité interviews and – I'm sure you've come across the Men's Sheds movement. Men tend to talk better when they're doing stuff. I noticed that he would answer me much more poetically if I had him actually hammering a wall or if I had him with something in his hands, rather than just ‘Okay, sir, please tell me about your inner secrets, in a chair.’ So I combined the two, both stylistically and also practically, to get those stories out of this, because he would tell them to me off camera very frequently.”

I suggest that this gives us more of a sense of place as well, because the character of the house is so important to the film, and we learn a little more about it as he's repairing it all the time.

“That was something we developed over the course of the film,” he explains. “When you turn up there, it almost looks like this Airbnb, beautiful holiday house type place that people would stay in. But for him, it was almost like his safe space. He came back to it to heal, to get over things, and then it became part of him as he was, like, shedding off his broken layer, and he was able to build back on top of it. He got strength and health back from being swimming in the water every day, getting good food locally, and being able to spend time with his family for the first time in many years.”

So when you're confronted with a vast archive like that, how do you choose which photographs to use and how to tell a story through them?

“It's a big process,” he acknowledges. “It's combined in a couple of different approaches. One of them is that we pull together stories that were really important for his career and his life. Another was just stories or photos that we really loved. I wanted to include things that really moved me. And then the third element was, I told you about how we started off, but then how we finished the film was with him opening up a lot more of his life. So we used photos that reflected that journey, showing the different places that he'd been to that were really important for him professionally but that he had to pay this price for.”

He and his co-director were very much on the same page with this, he says.

“It was very collaborative. Ollie was an editor for 20-odd years before he did this, so it was very collaborative. The only thing was that we wanted more of the photos because there's so many of them, and so it was tricky making those choices, but we're happy with the choices we made.”

So what is Gary working on now?

“I've got two projects. The first one is called John Lennon's Beatle Island, and that is the story of John Lennon, who bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. He was going to move there just after the Beatles broke up, and he was going to build a mansion there. He was big into scream therapy at the time so he was going to build a mansion and scream out at the ocean. Anyway, life got in the way and he didn't. He ended up giving it to this group of hippies, and they went to war with the local town. So the way I describe it is, it’s Father Ted meets Wild Country. And then the other project I'm working on is called Fixing The War. It’s about the role of fixers, who are largely unseen in media creation, and how they work in the 21st century war in Ukraine.”

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