Belfast the focus of Glen town judge’s photo exhibit
JOHNSTOWN These days Erik Schnackenberg sits as justice in the Glen Town Court.
He reads stacks of thick files and rules on hosts of traffic violations. The job staves off retirement boredom, but 40 years ago he was dodging bullets in Northern Ireland, capturing conflict and fear through a Nikon lens.
Schnackenberg documented the political upheaval, religious segregation and violence known by the Irish as simply “The Troubles.” In the mid-1970s British soldiers tangling with members of the Provisional IRA turned the streets of Belfast into an inhabited war zone. There was barbed wire, gunfire, rampant paranoia — and Schnackenberg in the middle of it all with his camera.
Now, four decades later, the black-and-whites he snapped are displayed in a gallery at Fulton Montgomery Community College. The show opened Tuesday and runs through March 18.
In an interview Tuesday, Schnackenberg detailed the events that put him in Belfast at maybe the worst time in history to be there.
“I think I missed the fear,” he said.
Schnackenberg served in the Marine Corps from 1960 to 1968, seeing action in Vietnam. When he got out, he found work shooting photos for Manhattan ad agencies.
“It paid well,” he said, “but there was something missing.”
He described a day early on in that safe career. He was perched on a ladder shooting pictures of a new bread product — slices laid out on a table with butter and flatware in a phony, farmhouse-looking set.
As he shot his photos he noticed three suit-wearing advertising executives watching from the set fringes — nervous about pleasing the packaged bread account.
“I had to stop myself from giggling,” he said. “Right then I knew I had to do something to maintain sanity.”
After eight years as a Marine, Schnackenberg missed the rush of near-death adrenaline and the perspective it afforded to mundane life.
“So I started seeking out small conflicts in exotic places,” he said.
He photographed uprisings in Nigeria, Kurdish conflicts in Turkey and a handful of other situations. Then in 1972 he brought his camera to Northern Ireland.
He said the Belfast he entered was a mess of barbed wire, British military patrols and Irish Republican Army gunmen. Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods were separated by sandbags and machine-gun check points.
“The British troops would march through Catholic neighborhoods, pounding their riot shields and chanting,” he said. “ ‘We’re up to our necks in Fenian blood.’ ”
One day he was chatting with a Catholic man on a main street when he heard the rumble of armored cars coming up from behind.
“Just out of habit I turned to my left and swung out my Nikon to get a photo,” he said, “and the wall next to me turned to brick and plaster dust. I guess someone in those armored cars thought I had a gun.”
The bullets missed. It was a near thing, but Schnackenberg said the fear of death wasn’t actually what set the Irish conflict apart from the rest of his war photography. He saw people clubbed to death in jungle nations. He took photos. However, what made Ireland so compelling, he said, was the paranoia.
One of his photos displayed at FMCC depicts a mother and child walking down the street, eyes straight ahead as a British military patrol snatches a passing teen off the sidewalk.
“They learned early to just keep walking,” he said. “Everyone was being watched all the time.”
More than a dozen of Schnackenberg’s Ireland photos are displayed at FMCC. Some, he said, document children on either side of neighborhood check points. The Catholic children downtrodden; the Protestant youth well dressed and cocky.
The show is a compilation from three trips to Northern Ireland starting in 1972. In the four decades since Schnackenberg photographed his last Irish conflict, the country has largely healed.
Schnackenberg continued to photograph conflicts for many years after Ireland, eventually giving up the dangerous job at the age of 60 in favor of raising a family. Today he lives on a rural road in the town of Glen.
Since retirement he has avoided boredom driving school buses, and most recently heading up his town court room. He keeps busy, but doesn’t take many photos anymore.
“Sometimes I see something, and I frame it up in my head, but that’s where it stays,” he said. “I have a little digital camera, but it’s not the same.”
FMCC will display the Northern Ireland photos through March 18. An artists’ reception is scheduled for the evening of Feb. 28. Schnackenberg will also give a talk about his work from noon to 1 p.m. March 5 in the Perrella Gallery.