M40 minibus disaster 20 year anniversary

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Last week I was up in the Midlands on assignment speaking with – and photographing – some of those affected by the M40 minibus disaster.

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of that crash in which 12 children and their teacher – all from Hagley Catholic High School – died.

One of them was my cousin Claire.

I was left feeling inadequate in my command of words and light to tell anything of the families’ loss or of the event which destroyed life as they knew it 20 years ago.

Hagley School
Stained glass window, Hagley School

And I’m still wrestling with the issue of partiality, and whether a piece of written and visual journalism is better or worse as a result of one’s intimate involvement.

Claire’s death was, after all, part of my history.

Perhaps the journalism which comes out is just different.

What I do know is that, quality aside, my images are very personal.

The photograph of Claire’s teacher Trish Wood, for example, marks a personal resolution for me.

Trish Wood in class
Trish Wood in class

When Claire died I was 18 years old and had just finished my school career. At the time of her death I desperately wanted to see her class; to see where she sat, perhaps even to sit in her seat. Perhaps I was yearning for some sense of her to have remained in that classroom. But I was too afraid to ask to visit the classroom.

Twenty years on and those fears no longer exist. So I asked the current headteacher both whether I could see the room and whether I could take pictures. He very kindly agreed.

And inside that same classroom, 20 years on, was Trish, Claire’s form tutor and French teacher.

I shot a number of images inside that room. The one I selected for use in the BBC feature was of Trish in the distance, the crucifix above, and the nine chairs in the foreground. Nine specifically, because she was tutor to nine of the children who died. And she is framed by an empty whiteboard.

I had asked Trish to look at me, which she did. But it is this image, despite its lack of sharpness, which grabbed me and spoke of the moment when I reviewed them later. Out of frame is my Aunt Liz, and it is her to whom Trish is looking.

Liz and Steve Fitzgerald
Liz and Steve Fitzgerald

The image of Liz and Steve was hurriedly done because Steve had a meeting to go to. Very simply, when I asked them to hold hands they formed a kind heart shape with their portrait of Claire. They would not have been aware of this. But it worked for me.

And finally there was the portrait of Justine Clark, mother of Ruth Clark (top).

She is an incredible woman. I had spent about 40 minutes recording an interview with her before asking to take her picture.

I always do interviews first, not least because something may arise during the interview which informs how a photograph might better be taken.

But there’s another element too – that people after an interview will have the subject of that interview at the forefront of their minds.

I believe that lends an emotional honesty to subsequent imagery.

Here, Justine is framed very simply to one side by Tulips. Her side-on gaze at her photograph of Ruth is, like the woman herself, full of dignity, elegance and an incredibly tender pain.

The perpendiculars are strong – the flowers, vase, radiator, stripes on the jumper, posture. During the interview Justine told how her faith propped her up.

Perhaps we, the viewers, feel there should be something on the right to balance the visual impact of the tulips, to make the composition stand properly. There isn’t. There’s an area of emptiness. Intentionally.

1 Comment
  1. John O'Neill

    Dear Laurence
    I was prompted today [by a chance conversation about school bus safety] to google the Hagley minibus crash and I came upon your post and it touched me deeply. You see, I was Claire and Ruth’s art teacher at the time. I got to know Liz and Steve quite well in the couple of years after the tragedy and I vividly remember chatting with Ruth’s mum at a parents evening some months before Ruth died. I taught many of the other children also and knew them all as lovely souls full of life. It still breaks my heart.
    It all seems a long time ago now but I know the impact the whole experience had on me and my subsequent life. Teaching was never the same for me, in fact I no longer teach. I left Hagley in 2001and have not been back since, nor do I have any contact with anyone from that time. I had many friends at Hagley, including Trish, but I had to leave it all behind. I suppose I have tried to bury the memory but it surfaces quite regularly and the pain is still as intense. Since the accident I have suffered with episodes of chronic depression which eventually cost me my career. However, it was a privilege to know the children and I will always remember Liz and Steve’s strength and kindness and Mrs Clark’s dignity.
    Thank you for your post.
    Kind regards
    John O’Neill

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