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by Cathal Brown

    The 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 say cheese.
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.

Cathal Brown

A Day at the Beach