Taken Down in Evidence
Ireland from the Back Seat of a Patrol Car
Book Review by Eamonn Hughes
Issue 6 Winter 1995
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Published by: Gill and Macmillan, Dublin
Leo Regan, a newspaper photographer, spent some eighteen months with the Garda to produce this text, divided between interviews with individual gardai and photographs from three locations: the Store Street station in Dublin (whose area includes the notorious and ironically-named Sheriff Street housing estate); a border station; and a station in rural Galway. It has to be said that, initially, one is unsure of what one is looking at. Is this photojournalism or documentary? If the former then many of the pictures lack the drama and urgency one would expect. If the latter, then there are the usual worries about participant/observer status. Nor are these merely generalised problems for they are raised directly by Regan's introductory comments. Having missed a photograph because of garda interference he is saved from a possible beating by the shout "He's with us". Nevertheless, the hostility and suspicion with which gardai regard the media is still an issue and although Regan was granted access he has had to change the name of the interviewees and even then some of them seem to have placed their jobs on the line by talking to him without express permission.
This then leads to the central photographic dilemma of the work. Regan's introduction speaks of how he moved from seeing the gardai as "a group of uniforms, a collective being" to "a group of individuals". The framing photographs try to emulate this change of perception. The first is of student gardai attending mass during their annual pilgrimage to Knock. The photograph (which suffers, as do all the double page photographs, from a too tight binding) is taken indoors and strongly side and back-lit so that as the eye travels from left to right and from foreground to background along a queue of gardai, it is also moving from an indistinct mass to a still-indistinguishable but slightly more detailed figures. If this opening photograph has a narrative line suggesting Regan's changing attitude then one would expect that the closing photograph would confirm it. At first sight it appears to do so since here we have a lone garda cutting turf in a misty landscape. However, the anonymous mentality of this figure - reminiscent of an iconography of the Irish peasant familiar from Man of Arran - far from individualising the garda in question renders him just as part of a collective as the trainee gardai at the start. While some photographs - usually those set in dingily forbidding offices - of individual gardai or even of small groups of them do manage to individualise them, catching them off-guard so to speak, it is the photographs of civilians which seem to me to come alive with a personality or a set of circumstances. Paradoxically enough some photographs of corpses also have this quality. Those photographs of the gardai at work, usually outside and more often than not on dimly-lit streets rely too heavily on the captions to explain them. There is too often a sense of aftermath; in Regan's own words, "That was the photograph I wanted. But it was too late".
This returns us to the dilemma of the project. Running through the always fascinating interviews (and the book is worthwhile for these alone) is a strong sense of 'them and us'. The boundaries between 'them and us' shift according to the perspective of the speaker: inner-city gardai clearly see it being between the gardai and civilians; a female gardai refers to her male colleagues as 'them'; a rural gardai states that the boundary does not exist in country areas. For most of us, however, the back seat of a patrol car is the place where the boundary is clear between the gardai and civilians. Perhaps then from that perspective and despite his best efforts Regan can only give us a version of the garda as 'them'.