Cork-based photographer Dara McGrath has spent years taking pictures of chemical weapons sites and other contaminated military areas, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
It's a tranquil scene, as pretty as a postcard. A gravelly shoreline with the vivid greens and purples of bracken and heather, a calm blue sea, and beyond it, a vista of majestic mountains. The photo was taken on Gruinard Island, in north-western Scotland, also known as Anthrax Island.
During WWII, British military researchers contaminated the island by using it to test Anthrax on sheep; despite a clean-up operation in the 1980s, to this day the island is a deserted wilderness, only visited by the occasional day-tripper.
Cork-based photographer Dara McGrath has visited Gruinard five times as part of an eight-year project in which he has discovered almost 100 sites with a similar story, capturing beautiful, often tranquil images of deserted landscapes where a hidden history lies just beneath the surface: places used for the manufacture, testing and storage of chemical and biological weapons from WWI to the present day.
“On Gruinard Island, there’s 80 years of growth, so it’s like wading through snow, the grass and gorse and heather have grown so high,” McGrath says. “You go 100 yards and you’re exhausted. It’s an odd place, but it’s beautiful in ways.”
For one visit to Gruinard,Limerick-born, Cork-based McGrath bought a dinghy from fellow photographer Harry Moore and sailed in his late father’s yacht up the Scottish coast to get to the remote island, sleeping under his up-turned dinghy overnight.
Did fears of contamination rear their head while he was working?
“It’s still potentially dangerous; other sites I visited are more inert and cordoned off. They are mostly harmless; it’s the underlying history really.”
Other sites McGrath has photographed in the past eight years have been sprayed with the known carcinogen zinc cadmium sulphate, used to manufacture and store mustard gas and nerve agents, or been used for animal testing with nasties including pneumonic plague bacilli.
It’s one country’s hidden history of the most atrocious element of the arms race, which intensified in the period between WWII and the Cold War. “It was a military-industrial complex of chemical and biological weapons,” the photographer says. “In the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, scientists from the UK and the US and Russia were justifying the threat level: higher and higher and higher.”
McGrath hasn’t worked exclusively on Project Cleansweep, but it’s been an eight-year process, nonetheless, involving extensive research and travelling to locations whenever he could. “I have young kids. I think my youngest was three months old when I first stumbled on this story, so I tend to get away at Easter, mid-terms, over the summer and things like that.”
Although McGrath’s quest was triggered by a news article he read in the Guardian newspaper in 2011, which revealed that the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) was investigating 14 sites for potential contamination, it was on Irish soil that the idea of post-military contamination first made an impression on him. He was photographing the demolition of the Maze prison in Co Down.
“Part of the site had been a British firing range, and there was so much lead in the ground that they had to decontaminate the soil down to a metre. It occurred to me that this military activity had created hidden contamination, where the land could look perfect, but it was hiding something poisonous.
“In 1973, they also tried an experimental tear gas on prisoners in the Maze during a riot. The screws put on hazmat suits and went in and sprayed the prisoners. One prisoner commented that they were all used to tear gas, but that this was a completely different thing. It was called CR gas.”
McGrath discovered that CR gas was manufactured at a military base in Cornwall called Nancekuke; he photographed the facility in 2013. The ongoing Nancekuke Remediation Project is still investigating what substances were dumped in quarries and mineshafts on the base.
The echoes of history are present in many of the sites to this day. At Harpur Hill in Derbyshire, formerly the biggest chemical weapons reception and storage depot in the UK, a flooded quarry known to locals as the ‘Blue Lagoon’ has a pH of 11.3; in 2013, after McGrath took his otherworldly images of the lagoon, the local authority dumped black dye into the water to deter locals from swimming.
Closer to home, McGrath has photographed the coastline near the Beaufort Dyke, between Northern Ireland and Scotland; the sea trench had munitions, chemical weapons and an estimated two tonnes of radioactive waste dumped into it in a timespan that stretched from the 1920s to the 1970s.
A lot of the stories are, McGrath says, of “totally irresponsible” acts. Although Project Cleansweep has been primarily an artistic endeavour, there is an activist element to it too.
“That gesture of bringing this to consciousness is an activist gesture, although I don’t see myself as taking one side or another. I’m commenting on the history of another country, so it’s only appropriate for me to raise the point in the most neutral way.”
McGrath, who combines his work in commercial and art photography with part-time work in Cork Public Museum, has launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Kickstarter website to raise €5,000 towards the costs of publishing a photo book on the project.
“I knew I had to do a book on this right from the beginning,” he says. “There’s a lot of archived documentation. This can’t only be an exhibition; it has to be more. I’ve got press photos that would have been used on open days at some of the sites, declassified documents I’ve trawled through archives to get.”
McGrath has already exhibited the photos, some in local communities close to where he’s photographed, and held an exhibition at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
He shoots on a medium-format digital camera, which, he says, affords him a lot of freedom when it comes to working on a project of such vast scale. “Everyone’s going retro now, but I just couldn’t afford to get the prints done, Creative photography doesn’t earn you big bucks at the end of the day, but it’s the love of it, the intrigue, and being determined to start something and finish it.”
Where did his determination to finish such a vast project come from? He smiles.
“A mountain is there to be climbed. It’s the nature of my work practice to look for these oddities, these transitional moments in the landscape. They hover somewhere between the beauty of the image and the underlying horror story.”
Project Cleansweep Kickstarter: www.kickstarter.com/projects/872071471/the-landscape-of-chemical-and-biological-weapons-in-the-uk