Remembering Seamus Kelters: Pioneering Trauma Journalist

By Donna De Cesare

I met Seamus Kelters through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in 2003.  We were part of a cohort of journalism fellows coming together to share our experiences reporting trauma, and the impact it had had on us.  Seamus opened up about the harrowing ethical dilemmas he and his BBC TV newsroom colleagues faced reporting on sectarian violence in tightknit enclaves of their city—Belfast, Northern Ireland.   Often the victims and perpetrators would be people with whom Seamus and his team of reporters had some direct personal linkage-- through family, friends or because they’d been classmates at school. 

In that first encounter Seamus and I connected through photography.  He loved images and enjoyed making photographs.  I’d spent most of my reporting career covering Latin America, but I’d included a handful of images from early 1980s Northern Ireland in my presentation. Two images in particular ignited Seamus’ enthusiasm. 

Portadown, 1984

Portadown, Northern Ireland, 1984

Donna De Cesare, Divis Flats, Belfast

Divis Flats, Belfast

The first, taken during a day of loyalist riots in Portadown Northern Ireland in 1984, shows a line of policemen in riot gear headed down a street as people take refuge in a local eatery.   Its name “The Tasty Takeout” is emblazoned above the glass plate windows which separate the expressive onlookers from events on the street.

In the other photograph a sleeping child in Divis Flats on Belfast’s Falls Road lies on a bench beside a bag of trash.  The reality of boy’s poverty is foregrounded. However, painted on the wall behind him is an Irish fiddler, larger than life, who seems to elicit a blissful expression from the dreaming child. Seamus savored the irony in the first image and the magical realism of the second.  Photography anchored our mutual understandings of the worlds we explored.  I discovered in Seamus a kindred spirit. 

Seamus Kelters could make me laugh till my sides ached. His vivid imagination and comedic timing made him a practitioner par excellence of the art of entertaining conversation the Irish call the craic. Seamus could also turn on an emotional dime, switching his tone to encouragement or comfort, intuiting when words would be superfluous.  He made people feel special and he lodged in the heart. I suspect these qualities are what made him singular-- not only was he special to family and colleagues but he connected and made an impression on those whose stories he treated as treasured gifts.

In 1999 Seamus and four reporting colleagues published their monumental compendium chronicling each death attributable to the Northern Irish “troubles.” It was a decade in the making, and his colleagues credit Seamus with being the heartbeat of the project, the one who kept everyone focused and producing through years of searching for names, faces, facts, stories. He was tenacious, mastering contour, scale and granularity. 

The last time I saw Seamus, we were in Cambridge at a conference hosted by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.  We talked about my making a trip to visit Northern Ireland to see how much it had changed.  I regret that I never did see Seamus in Belfast.  But I cherish the gift he brought me. A work both painstaking and heartrending, Lost Lives is a reckoning with immeasurable suffering.  It is also a pillar of historical memory and the great gift and legacy Seamus leaves us all.