Glen town judge’s photo exhibit depicts violence, paranoia in 1970s Belfast

JOHNSTOWN – Two black-and-white photos of Irish children hang framed on the wall near the door of the Perrella Gallery at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

In the left photo, a group of children stare moodily at the camera while standing in front of a small brick shed with a horse peeking out. Their clothes are ripped and dirty, the world-weary faces devoid of smiles. The photo on the right is almost the polar opposite. The smiling children, pausing for the photo in the middle of a street soccer game, are well-dressed and clean.

The photos are two of more than a dozen black-and-white shots taken by Glen Town Court Judge Erik Schnackenberg during the 1970s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and featured alongside enlarged newspaper reproductions in the exhibit “One Moment in Ireland’s Three Hundred Year War,” currently on display in the gallery. The photo on the left depicts children on the Catholic side of the city; the right photo shows children from the city’s Protestant side.

“I noticed later when I was making prints, this guy fascinated me,” Schnackenberg said recently while at the Perrella Gallery, pointing out a teenager in the photo of the Catholic children. “He looks so old. And most of the faces here, they’re poor kids, but they really look beat down, especially a couple of these. But that one in particular looks far older than his actual age – I think he was about 13.

“And then, walking along the Protestant section, there were a group of kids on the street kicking a soccer ball,” Schnackenberg continued, pointing to the second photo. “And again making the print, I noticed the arrogance and the self-assuredness, because they’re on the top of the pecking order; their dads all have jobs. … And just the attitude, the difference between the Catholic kids and the Protestants. As far as I’m concerned, I was raised a Protestant, but I could not relate to that kind of Calvinist Protestantism in Northern Ireland.”

The two photos underline the economic differences between the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland during the period of religious and economic struggle in Ireland’s history that would come to be known as The Troubles. The violent conflict between the two factions – the Irish nationalist Catholics and the British-supporting Protestants – began in the 1960s and lasted for more than three decades.

Originally from New Britain, Conn., Schnackenberg has lived in Glen since 1985, serving for many years in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department. He replaced retired Judge Thomas J. Murray on the Glen Town Court in January.

Schnackenberg joined the Marine Corps in 1960, fighting in Vietnam before leaving the service in 1967 and pursuing a degree in design in New York City. While photographing models for a presentation, he became interested in photography, and upon graduation worked as a commercial photographer for an advertising agency in the city. He began to reconsider this career while photographing three slices of bread while perched on a ladder, an assignment that ended up taking at least two weeks, he said.

“And I’m on the ladder shooting three stinking slices of bread, and the guys in suits are tip-toeing around, and that’s when I felt the giggles start, like a bubble, because [of] the hyper-seriousness of it,” Schnackenberg said. “I said to myself, ‘Jesus, I’m not Michelangelo; this is not the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I’m shooting three stinking slices of bread.'”

After this epiphany, Schnackenberg began taking time off work to travel to war-torn areas and photograph them. Until moving to Glen in 1985 to raise a family, Schnackenberg photographed conflicts in Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, Colombia and other South American countries. He made three trips to Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1973.

“I might have taken a minor financial bite every time I did it, but it enabled me to go back to New York City feeling refreshed,” he said. “I think a lot of people would say the same thing if they’ve been in the service at all. There’s something about the adrenaline flow that makes you feel alive, and then anything after that is superficial and silly.”

During his time in Northern Ireland, Schnackenberg had to be careful to blend in with whichever side of the city – Protestant or Catholic – he was on. The paranoia on both sides was “so thick and heavy you could taste it,” he said.

The photos depict everyone from British soldiers to everyday Irish citizens on both sides of the conflict. One of the first photos in the exhibit, facing the gallery’s door, features British soldiers on a truck.

“It was early in the morning, a standard, gray Belfast morning,” Schnackenberg said. “I turned a corner, I saw them, they saw me. They were not happy with being photographed. … I got the fishy eye from this guy.”

Another photo depicts three soldiers walking with their backs to the camera. One has an Irish teenager by the arm and is dragging him down the street. An Irish woman and her two children face the camera as they pass the soldiers, not looking at them.

“[It’s] another example of the paranoia at the time,” Schnackenberg said.

Schnackenberg said the graffiti either in support of or against the nationalist movement was often the only way to tell which side of the city he was on. The gloomy nature of the city led Schnackenberg to develop the photos in black-and-white instead of color.

“The thing about it is that both sections looked the same, run-down, poor,” he said. “It was a gray, sooty city, and even with the flags and the graffiti, it didn’t work in color; it really said black-and-white. I happen to like black-and-white because it’s more abstract, there’s a little more to it. Color fools the eye. For example, something like that [photo] in color would fool you around to thinking it’s picturesque.”

These days, Schnackenberg spends his time learning the ropes at the Glen Town Court. Since retiring, his photography has mostly fallen by the wayside.

“I couldn’t imagine anyone going into the profession now because … everyone has a [digital or phone] camera, and I was strictly film,” Schnackenberg said. “I don’t shoot trees or fluffy dogs or puppies. Although, when my kids were growing up, every breath they took was photographed.”

Schnackenberg will give a talk about his time in Northern Ireland at the Perrella Gallery on Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. The exhibit, which also was recently shown at the Irish American Museum in Albany, runs through March 18.