A French photographer recalls Bloody Sunday (1972)

Gilles Peress was a French photojournalist known for covering situations involving tension, violence and conflict. Peress was present in Londonderry during the ‘Bloody Sunday’ riots and shootings in January 1972 and recalls those events here:

“I remember the beginning of the march, when it left the Creggan Estate–I think Martin McGuinness was speaking to people. The march proceeded down the hill from the Creggan to the Bogside. By the time it reached William Street, I was at the head of it to shoot the picture of the marchers coming down William Street, the traditional shot.

The paratroopers had established two barricades. the first, I believe, was at Agro Corner, on James Street before it crosses William Street. The other barricade was at the bottom of William Street halfway between Chamberlain Street and Waterloo Road. What I find is that for the last thirty years the lines of confrontation have remained in those particular spots, and over that time I don’t think they have moved more than ten yards.

As the march passed on towards Free Derry Corner, a mini-riot started. By the time the army brought out its water cannon, things had begun to cool down: I have this picture of the crowd sitting down on the pavement at the corner of William Street and Chamberlain Street under a rain of purple dye–well, some of them were sitting down! One of the young people sitting down in protest was killed moments later. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, from James Street across William Street, I saw the First Paras [members of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment] in their Saracens move towards Free Derry Corner, towards the Rossville Flats. Then the shooting started. then everybody started running…

I’m trying to remember my emotions… I know that at one point I was shooting and crying at the same time. I think it must’ve been when I saw Barney McGuigan dead. By the time I had reached him, people were still huddling by the telephone box, protecting themselves from the shooting. He was alone. Then a priest [Father Tom O’Hara] arrived and started to give him the Last Rites. I remember taking a few pictures then. I remember I was crying as I was doing it. I remember that I didn’t want to intrude too much, but that at the same time I felt this obligation to shoot, to document. It is always the same fucked-up situation: you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t…

This was the first time I saw what a real war weapon can do. I mean the destruction, the impact of it. Up until then, I thought that bullets killed you but they would kill you kind of neatly. You understand what I’m saying? This was the first time I realised the terrible destruction that those things create.”