seven men to be shot lined up against the wall. They were pale
and thin, but did not look unduly worried. They might have been
on the pavement of the main street of a city waiting for a bus,
or part of a dole queue. Yet they were going to die.
I was there as an official army photographer.
The pictures I took would go into the records, and could be used
as propaganda to dissuade other would-be insurgents. I looked
through the viewfinder of my Nikon, which I’d already placed
on its tripod, but the red light came on, an indication that there
was not yet sufficient light to take a picture. The executions
were to take place when it was fully light.
I lit a cigarette to while away the time.
It tasted good in the grey early morning coldness. This day put
me in mind of other days when I had had to rise early. Getting
up to milk the cows on my uncle’s farm. Beating the other
early birds to be the first caddy who got a round on the golf-course.
It was odd to think that for years since then, I had slept through
this special time. And for years to come would probably do so.
The commander in charge of the executions
was growing impatient. He was a stiff, cardboard-cut-out figure
to whom I had taken an instant dislike. Although he stood only
a few yards away from me, we ignored each other, as though divided
by a concrete wall. In any case, the circumstances were not such
as were conducive to small-talk.
Some yards away, a small group of soldiers
stood huddled together, a collective mist rising from their breath.
They looked an unlikely firing-squad; much more pathetic, in fact
than those they would be responsible for killing. Fear drove them
into a herd. The men against the wall, on the other hand, stood
alone, muttering sometimes to their companions, but mostly aloof
and resigned with dignity to their fate.
I stamped on my cigarette-butt, and looked
again through the viewer of my camera. This time, the red light
did not come on. I began with a straightforward shot of the seven
men against the wall, which formed part of a bombed-out house.
In the brightness, I could now see their faces more clearly. They
stared stonily at me. I resisted the temptation to ask them to
It was a perfect picture. The wall behind
them, pockmarked by bullets formed the ideal backdrop to the seven
gaunt figures which faced me. My heart beat as it always did when
I knew I was on a winner. Excited now, I reached for my zoom-lens
and began to take close-ups of their grey, lined faces. There
was definitely something special about this early light.
Then I began to experiment, taking shots
of their boots, of a hand clicking its fingers impatiently, of
the profiles of two men talking, of another taking a last drag
from a cigarette. I worked with increasing urgency, knowing that
at any moment the commander would decide that the moment was right,
step forward, and tell me to leave.
Trying to insert a new film in my camera,
my numb hands dropped it. I cursed, picked it up, inserted it
and began to press the shutter urgently, faster and faster, moving
around the camera at random, no longer looking at what I was taking,
not even sure if it was in focus. I was in a state of excitement
such as I had not known for some time.
Finally, the second and last film ran out,
and I picked up the camera and the stand. I had no intention of
watching what was to follow. As I walked away, the commander began
barking orders at the men, who slowly and unwillingly made their
way to meet their enemy.
Feeling elated, I crunched over the stones
of an unfinished road on my way to the prefab where the jeep which
had brought me awaited. I was halfway there when the shots rang
out. Immediately a flock of geese blazed up out of nowhere and
showered the sky. Momentarily shocked by their glory, I wasted
precious moments before reaching for my Brownie, which I always
kept handy, and when I took the shot, the moment had passed.
In any case, I was in such a hurry that
the angle at which I held the camera was completely wrong, and
when the picture was developed it showed only grey, empty sky.
Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’
(1991), pages 16-17.