The Irish photographer who won a Pulitzer, then quit ‘the best job in the world’
When Irish photographer Cathal McNaughton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 2018, it was the peak of his professional career.
McNaughton was already a multi-award-winning photojournalist, but it was his searingly powerful images of desperate Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar that won McNaughton – along with his colleagues from Reuters news agency – the prestigious prize.
At the time, McNaughton was based in Delhi, working for Reuters as its chief photographer in India. But when he returned from the Pulitzer ceremony in New York, via Toronto, he was denied re-entry to India.
McNaughton was dazed: it was late at night and he had just come off a 14-hour fight. Without explanation, the Indian authorities escorted him back to the plane he’d flown in on and marched him down the aisle to his seat. Before he was fully aware of it, he found himself flying back to Toronto. His job, his apartment, his friends, his possessions: all were left behind in Delhi.
McNaughton’s life, as he had known it up until then, had disintegrated.
Today, McNaughton remains the first and only photojournalist on the island of Ireland to win the Pulitzer Prize. But there are no more photo assignments in Bangladesh or Afghanistan or Iraq. He no longer works for Reuters. Instead, McNaughton lives a frugal, solitary existence, accompanied only by his dog, in an old cottage halfway up a windswept hillside in the Glens of Antrim, close to Cushendall, where he grew up. He does not even own a camera.
So what happened?
“At the airport, after I returned to Delhi from the Pulitzer ceremony, the customs people immediately gathered round me,” says McNaughton. “I could see my driver waiting for me outside, and I texted him, saying ‘out in a minute’. Suddenly my baggage arrived beside me: somebody had brought it from the carousel. Eventually they told me, ‘we’re not letting you back into India’. The only thing I could think of was: this is something to do with Kashmir. ”
He was right. McNaughton had previously visited the disputed territory, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.
“The Indian authorities said I was excluded for breaking the terms of my visa by travelling to restricted areas in Kashmir, but through government back channels we discovered it was actually because I was highlighting what was going on there.”
(Neither the Indian Ministry for External Affairs nor the Indian High Commission in London responded to an Irish Times request for a comment on McNaughton’s account of his exclusion.)
McNaughton was drawn to Kashmir because he could see parallels between the civil unrest in the region and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life – they call it the Switzerland of India – but it’s also one of the most militarised zones on the planet,” he says. “You have a group of people living in a state that they didn’t sign up to live in. One side sees the military as an occupying force; the other side sees it as the ruling force, keeping the place in check.
“Local insurgents, freedom fighters – whatever you want to call them – attack the military, then the military return the favour. It’s a predominantly Muslim area, and the majority of people want an independent state of Kashmir, or failing that, they would rather be in Pakistan – which of course is India’s biggest rival, and another nuclear power.”
McNaughton stayed on a house-boat on Dal Lake, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and was treated with suspicion by the authorities from the moment he arrived. The police rang his host many times every day.
“They were asking: where is he? What’s he doing? Who is he seeing?” recalls McNaughton. “I was being followed by plain clothes policemen. The locals told me who they were. I guess they didn’t want the world to know what was happening there.”
There was only one place to go when he was turned away from India, and that was home, to Cushendall.
“My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and my dad had had several mini-strokes. Reuters were very good to me; they offered me another position, in Manila, but it was too far away. I had to be close to Mum and Dad. And after working in this industry for so long, I needed a break.
“I may have had the best job in the world, but my family is the most important thing to me. When I got the call to say I’d won the Pulitzer, the first thing I did was call my father on Facetime. We both opened a bottle of whiskey and got drunk together.”
McNaughton also wanted to be close to his young son, Dara, who lives in Belfast with his mum, McNaughton’s ex-wife.
By his own account, and that of his friends, the man sitting in front of me by his cottage fireside is a very different person these days. He’s calmer, more reflective, relieved to be free from the pressures of success.
“I was so highly-strung for such a long time – you have to sacrifice a lot to do that job. I was extremely competitive, completely focused on being the best I could be. But all that takes its toll on you.
“I’ve had my own issues, I don’t know any other photojournalist that hasn’t. There’s this macho attitude: oh, it doesn’t matter. You get used to seeing riots, bodies, stories that leave you cold, then going home for dinner.”
Documenting the Rohingya crisis was a particularly harrowing experience. At close proximity, McNaughton witnessed children fighting adults for food, adults stealing food from children.
“It was extremely intense. One thing that sticks in my mind, though, was the lack of noise, when people weren’t fighting. There were tens of thousands of children in those camps in Bangladesh, but it was so quiet. The silence was eerie, unnerving. You felt that people were almost looking through you.”
Now instead of catching a red-eye flight to one of the world’s crisis or conflict zones, McNaughton goes each morning to his parents’ house, a mile away, to cook their breakfast for them. At home, he chops his own wood for the fire: the axe he uses lies against the front wall of the cottage.
He takes long walks with his dog, Murphy, a highly energetic brown and white border collie. Murphy was going to be put down by his previous owner, a farmer, because he was a sheepdog who had no interest in herding sheep. At that point McNaughton decided to give the two-year-old collie a home.
“Did I save Murphy, or did he save me?” he ponders, then laughs. “Hard to say which.”
McNaughton has had plenty of time, over the last number of months, to reflect on his life in photography. He was 16 when the then picture editor of the Irish News, Brendan Murphy, took him on as an apprentice: cleaning the darkroom, processing films. Within weeks, he was accompanying journalists to the scenes of riots and shootings.
When McNaughton was only 21, he covered the aftermath of the Omagh bombing: his first solo assignment. The simple black and white photograph of a boy wiping away a tear at one of the bomb victims’ funerals was used as the front page of the next day’s Irish News, and brought compliments from leading international photographers.
“I was hooked. I wanted to be like them, flying around the world taking pictures. There seemed to be a glamour to it. I later realised that was not the case.”
He says he still feels the pain of what happened in India hanging over him.
“That was not how I intended to end that chapter of my life. Eventually I got most of my stuff back, but I left behind a lot of friends that I’ll never see again, because they won’t be able to leave India.”
Although McNaughton hasn’t owned a camera since he left Reuters – the only pictures he has taken are videos and snaps on his phone – he’s starting to feel the old urge again.
“I mightn’t have a camera, but I can’t stop being a photographer. I still see photographs, I’ve just not been taking them.”
This time McNaughton wants to go in a new direction. His goal is to establish Belfast as a centre for photographic excellence. Through his website, cathal-mcnaughton.com, he is offering masterclasses to aspiring photojournalists, designed to replicate the thousands of assignments McNaughton has undertaken in his decades on the front line.
He wants to work with local charities and community groups, helping people to tell their stories in an empathetic, connected way. In particular, he’s keen for women to become involved, since there are still so few of them in photojournalism.
“Photography is always about taking things, and never giving back to the people you’re taking from,” says McNaughton. “You’re an observer, not part of the experience, and sometimes you feel like a voyeur. It’s not easy to sit with that. So I’ve decided I want to give something back.”
Cathal McNaughton’s solo exhibition, Rohingya, is at Belfast Exposed gallery, 23 Donegall Street, Belfast until March 28th