Arts

Steafán Hanvey and Bobbie Hanvey on new book of photos and verse, Reconstructions

David Roy speaks to musician Steafán Hanvey and his award-winning photojournalist father Bobbie Hanvey about Steafán's debut poetry collection, Reconstructions, featuring verse inspired by the latter's striking images of the north during the Troubles

Ian Paisley poses for Bobbie Hanvey outside Stormont in 1985

BOBBIE Hanvey has been documenting life in Northern Ireland for almost 50 years now. During the Troubles, the Downpatrick-based photojournalist slept with a radio scanner chattering away by his bedside: Hanvey (73) could be up, dressed and into the car in a matter of moments once a local codeword crackled over the airwaves, his trusty Nikon slung and ready to capture the aftermath of a nearby atrocity – bombings, shootings, arson attacks and other grisly 'greatest hits' of mid-1970s Ulster.

Often, Co Fermanagh-born Hanvey would open the bedroom door to find his eldest son, Steafán, waiting – also dressed and ready for action. The pair would then speed off into the waning night to get their story, occasionally beating the RUC and emergency services to the crime scene.

Job done, they would return home to develop the shots in Bobbie's darkroom.

"It was definitely a 'less ordinary' childhood," comments Helsinki-based Steafán (46), now a seasoned musician who has recently had a second child with his partner, Sini.

"It was very different from my friends' childhoods. I'm not sure if a parent would get away with that these days."

Aftermath of a bomb in factory behind the old ABC Ritz Cinema in Belfast. If you recognise the man in this photo, Bobbie would like to hear from you at bobbiehanvey@gmail.com

Reconstructions: The Troubles in Photography and Words, is the Downpatrick-born man's debut poetry collection. Partly inspired by his father's iconic photography, it features 17 Bobbie Hanvey images plucked from the huge Bobbie Hanvey Collection curated by Boston College in the US, each accompanied by a related Steafán Hanvey-penned verse plus an explanatory note about the photo.

The images range from Troubles-related fodder to the posed pics and portraits of famous faces Bobbie also became renowned for through his work for the Down Recorder and as an independent operator.

The book includes memorable shots of Seamus Heaney wearing his father's coat and hat on a Bellaghy turf bog, a grinning gum-booted Co Tyrone pensioner flanked by a trio of heavily armed RUC officers, Ian Paisley mimicking the statue of Carson on the Stormont mile – reportedly the late DUP founder's favourite photo of himself – and a profile shot of poet Michael Longley, who also provides a glowing endorsement of Steafán's writing on the opening pages.

Bobbie Hanvey at the launch for Reconstructions at No Alibis bookshop. Picture by Philip Walsh

The evocative verse Late Developer pairs an autobiographical father/son tale from the Hanvey darkroom with a man and boy snap taken at Divis Flats.

"It's one of my favourites because it really digs into something," reveals Steafán of this most personal of poems. "My quality time with my father was not outside kicking a ball, it was in the darkroom or out at 2am or 3am taking photographs. It was a life around the photographs – that was my quality time and I took it when I could."


He adds: "Me and my dad haven't always had a good relationship. We actually had a falling out in the middle of doing this book, although we've since made up."

Reconstructions is the latest tome to feature Bobbie Hanvey's photography following the snapper's own collections Merely Players [1999] and Last Days of the RUC, First Days of the PSNI [2005].

Co Tyrone woman Sarah Primrose with a RUC neighbourhood watch patrol from Clogher station

"I thought it was a great job," enthuses Bobbie. "The poems are very good, y'know? I don't know poetry much, but Steafán puts the words together very well."

With a mischievous chuckle, he adds: "My favourite poem is 'I wandered lonely as a horse, that trots on high over vales and hills' – I think Seamus Heaney wrote that one."

Such devilment is characteristic of the quick-witted veteran photographer, journalist and musician, whose long running Downtown Radio show The Ramblin' Man featured interviews with an incredible selection characters plucked from the headlines and everyday life.

Bobbie is currently working on his own book about his photographic career, a belated sequel of sorts to his acclaimed autobiographical novel The Mental which drew upon his early years growing up in Brookeborough and a period spent working at Downpatrick's Downshire Hospital prior to pursuing photography full-time.

As he explains, his ongoing Leica-facilitated love affair with photography began at an early age with a Kodak Eastman he received from his father.

Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy, Co Derry, in 1986

"My father was a foreman lumberjack who used to cut down all the trees for the landed gentry in Northern Ireland," Bobbie tells me.

"He worked for James McGregor in Sydenham down in Belfast all his life. I used to take photos of him cutting down trees with a hatchet when I was hardly able to carry the camera.

"When I started working in the Downshire in 1966, I sent away mail-order for a camera. I used to take photos of patients working in the gardens – that's how I got the buzz for it, y'know?

"I've been taking photos of the Troubles since 1970. I just landed at the right time because it was like walking on to a horror film set every day.

"You just got up and every day there was something new thrown at you – an explosion here, a shooting there – that was tailor-made for photographers."

While Bobbie says that his camera acted as a kind of protective filter against some of the carnage that he witnessed – "the camera provided a barrier between you and reality" – he's had a couple of close shaves over the years.

Reconstructions' striking cover shot of a lone figure trudging towards the camera was snapped just moments after an early 1970s Belfast city centre bomb blast caught the then rookie news photographer unawares while practising his driving nearby.

"I had an old Ford Isopon" he recalls of his rust bucket motor. "When the bomb went off, the car lifted up about eight foot in the air. When it came down again, all the glass came in on top of me. I just grabbed the camera, jumped out and ran towards the smoke."

This may well have been the moment when Hanvey was confirmed as a 'real' news photographer. Indeed, Bobbie recalls that when the peace process finally kicked in during the mid-to-late 1990s, the sharp decline in 'if it bleeds it leads' fodder hit some seasoned lensmen hard.

"When the Troubles ended, all the photographers were depressed," he says. "Some of them were stuck doing cheque presentations, flower arrangements and baby photographs. After the Troubles, photographers had to use their heads to get a good photograph."

Happily, Bobbie's knack for capturing people on camera has stood him in good stead: he can still be seen out and about with his trusty Leica today and is currently working on a project documenting the north's news media at work.

According to Steafán, Reconstructions – which was launched at No Alibis in Belfast last week – is part of his ongoing effort to bring his father's work to wider attention.

"Nobody knows him in America – nobody knows him in Canada," he tells me. "When I signed a world-wide distribution deal for my second album, Nuclear Family, in tandem with that I also told my dad's story and showed people his photographs.

"I toured my multi-media performance Look Behind You!: A Father and Son's Impression of Northern Ireland through Photographs and Song around the States.

"I'm proud of my dad's work, but I always felt that he should have been getting more acknowledgement. This book is really a testament to a life's work."

:: Reconstructions: The Troubles in Photographs and Words is available now, published by Merrion Press. Buy online via Irishacademicpress.ie

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