Born in the rough-and-tumble Bronx in 1944, photojournalist Michael Schwartz became attracted to the still tougher neighborhoods of West Belfast during the late stages of the political conflict known as “The Troubles.” During the decade leading up to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended the violence in Northern Ireland, Schwartz made annual visits to the militant republican enclaves along the Falls Road, camera in hand. The hundreds of photos he brought back of children in the embattled streets are now available in Burns Library.
Schwartz learned to turn his lens on street life as a staff photographer for the New York Post from 1984-1994. He subsequently freelanced for the New York Daily News, which gave him more creative latitude. Schwartz’s photos were published in major US and European newspapers and magazines, garnering him several prizes, including multiple “best spot” awards from the New York Press Club, National Press Photographers’ Association, and Society of the Silurians, one of the oldest and most prestigious press clubs in the nation. Schwartz was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the second time for a now-famous photograph of Mother Teresa with Princess Diana waving from the doorway of a Catholic mission in South Bronx.
Schwartz succumbed to cancer in August 2017. Following his death, fellow photojournalist and friend Ardina Seward helped his sister, Suzanne Ashley, find a suitable repository for the project for which he most wanted to be recognized. Searching the Internet led them to discover our holdings of Northern Ireland photographs by Bobbie Hanvey. Last December, Ashley donated the entire collection of her brother’s Belfast photos, comprising more than 300 large-format black-and-white prints and associated negatives, contact prints, and slides, along with a small file of correspondence with Sean Allen, an amateur photographer whom he met in West Belfast and who accompanied him on his photo shoots. Ashley also transferred copyright to the images to Boston College to facilitate their publication by researchers.
Schwartz’s stirring photographs of children playing beside graffitied walls amid smoke and rubble were the subject of several exhibitions at the Soho Photo Gallery in Lower Manhattan and other venues. Early in the morning on September 14, 1998, before the opening of his solo exhibition “Faces of War: Children of Belfast,” a suspicious fire broke out in the Cooper Gallery in Jersey City. Police investigated it as an act of political bias. Schwartz told a reporter for the New York Times, “The subject matter obviously antagonized a person or a group … even though my intent was to try to show some compassion for these little kids that are victims over there, and maybe change some people in thinking about the peace process, all it did was the exact opposite” (Chen 1998). All 23 of Schwartz’s prints for the show were ruined, but fortunately he had kept the negatives in a safe deposit box. They are now safely deposited with us.
Schwartz received two modest “BRIO” grants from Bronx Council for the Arts to support his travels to Northern Ireland, but he largely financed the ten-year project on his own. All told, he shot 173 rolls of black-and-white film in Belfast. His contact prints provide insights into his creative process, showing the numerous images it took to get to one that met his standards for an outstanding photograph, which he stated in a 1999 interview with Photographer’s Forum, must “evoke an emotional response from the viewer, and have strong emotions shown by the subjects themselves” (Schaub 1999, 28).
In the same interview, Schwartz commented: “there is a political/social point of view that I, as a photographer, try to communicate in my Irish work. This is the great value of photography as photojournalism. I want people to see what I see and to document the adverse conditions in Belfast so that my work will publicize the wasted lives caused by ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, with special attention to the children there” (Schaub 1999, 30). He added, “I love these kids and feel for them” (Schaub 1999, 29).
In 2016, Schwartz self-published a selection of his photos under the title Irish Eyes: Children of West Belfast, 1988-1997. In the introductory essay, he remarked: “I saw West Belfast, with its Catholic residents, as a virtual ghetto under martial law, with ‘Peace Walls’ built by the British to separate Republican from Loyalists neighborhoods” (Schwartz 2016, ). The book includes reproductions of nearly a hundred of his photos, some showing the same children as they grew up.
Some of Schwartz’s Belfast photos are also available in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The Library of Congress holds a number of photographs he took on 9/11, documenting the horror of the terrorists attacks. A sampling of these images and others of his native Bronx are available on his personal website, which his sister now maintains as a memorial to his compassionate eye and lens.
“Michael was a true photojournalist if there ever was one,” remarked Daily News editor-in-chief Arthur Browne upon learning of his death. “Despite his tough exterior, he had a softness in his heart that’s evident in his photography” (McShane 2017).
- Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian, John J. Burns Library
- Lynn Moulton, Processing Archivist, John J. Burns Library
Michael Schwartz Northern Ireland photographs, MS.2018.005, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. http://hdl.handle.net/2345.2/MS2018-005.
Chen, David. “Suspicious Fire Burns Exhibit On Ulster Strife.” New York Times, September 14, 1998.
McShane, Larry. “Legendary New York Photographer Michael Schwartz Dead at 73.” New York Daily News, August 16, 2017.
“Michael Schwartz Photography,” accessed September 16, 2018: http://michael-schwartz-photo.com/.
Schaub, Grace. “Interview with Michael Schwartz,” Photographer’s Forum, May, 1999, 26-30.
Schwartz, Michael. Irish Eyes: Children of West Belfast, 1988-1997. New York: Michael Schwartz, 2016.