Photographer. An appreciation

GERRY McCann, who has died aged 64, was a Glasgow-based freelance photo journalist whose work, from around the world, appeared in major publications including The Herald, The Economist, The Observer, Der Spiegel, The Globe and The Guardian.

Back in the mid-1980s I had almost finished writing a book about the massive flow of refugees and displaced people from Ethiopia into Sudan, caused by a combination of drought and war. Among those trying to help were Scottish aid workers and engineers trying to revitalise the rail network to distribute food and other supplies in this vast country.

For visual impact in the book I needed up-to-date pictures.

It was shortly after Live Aid that the Radio Clyde overnight presenter, the late Jim Waugh, introduced me to a friend, Gerry McCann, a social worker turned professional photographer.

Weeks later, after some frantic fund raising, Gerry and I found ourselves in the dead of night walking to our hotel through the centre of Khartoum. We were an unusual combination … a radio reporter and a snapper. Over the following days and weeks we found ourselves in refugee camps and resettlement villages in eastern Sudan and near the Ethiopian border. I recorded interviews while Gerry took stunning pictures of the individuals, locals, refugees, Scottish aid workers and so-called barefoot doctors, caught up in this drama of Biblical proportions.

Gerry’s pictures helped to humanise the story subsequently told in the book, Sudan: The Eternal Apocalypse.

Gerry returned to Sudan and Ethiopia the following year. He reported on the freedom fighters from Tigray, struggling for independence from the oppressive Ethiopian regime, the Derg. Had he been caught he was told he would have been summarily executed. He was the first photographer to witness the aftermath of a merciless, day-long, air raid on the market town of Hausien where up to 2,500 people perished.

Gerry found families desperate for food and money and children who played with unexploded bombs instead of toys. Among the people he met was a baby and her traumatised mother. Twenty years later he revisited the town. That child was now a young woman. He brought us her story of survival and told us of her aspirations and her vision to become a teacher.

The following year, after a few beers in the Partick Tavern, Gerry asked me to help him with a project that would bring in 33 top professional photographers from Scotland and overseas.

Their task was to capture all aspects of life in Glasgow in one 24-hour period. This mammoth task involved mobilising a team of researchers, organising flights and accommodation for people from as far away as California and also getting a publisher.

On the day some 40,000 pictures were taken …from midnight to the following midnight … the highlights and the low life, poverty and richness and everything that made, and still makes, Glasgow. The most notable sporting event on that day was Scotland’s one-nil victory over Argentina at Hampden.

Those 40,000 pictures were whittled down to 170 for inclusion in the book, Glasgow: 24-Hours in the Life of a City.

Gerry was also an outdoor man, enjoyed skiing, cycling and mountaineering.

He was a solid trades unionist and an active member of the National Union of Journalists and their Photographers’ Council. As such he tirelessly championed the rights of his colleagues whose livelihoods were being drastically eroded by the relentless tide of social media, the encroachment of so-called citizen journalism and the cuts in budgets to news and picture desks which have resulted in the slashing of commissions for professional photographers, freelancers and staffers alike.

Gerry, always freelance, also fell victim to this and last year reverted to his original job of social work. Gerry, a dogged professional to the end, refused to give up completely on his passion and was, until very recently, talking about about embarking on fresh picture projects.