Photography that sees beyond surface drama of the Troubles
A new book seeks to catalogue the best photojournalism and fine-art photography of the past 30 years in the North
‘Butterfly Catchers’ (1999) by Hannah Starkey. Photograph courtesy of Maureen Paley Gallery
Northern Ireland was one of the most photographed places in the world during the Troubles. It was a relatively easy destination for photojournalists from the UK, Europe and the US to travel to. When they arrived in Belfast they found what seemed, to their trained eye, to be a war zone replete with visual drama. Many had been to Vietnam and the southern states of the US. They knew what photographs of conflict zones looked like. So in Northern Ireland they caught bombs exploding.
They snapped riots and rioters. They showed the police and the army caught in the middle of the hopelessly out of control violence. They photographed the children of the Troubles, who appeared either as helpless victims, or as kids who were terrifyingly indoctrinated with the sectarianism of their elders.
All of these were, of course, true pictures of the Troubles. But they were not the whole picture. While the mainstream media was saturated with images of violence, photographers living in Northern Ireland began to take things into their own hands. They too photographed the riots, but from the inside, and with a hurt knowledge that communal violence was happening in and to the place that they inhabited daily. Sean McKernan’s photograph of the riot on the Falls Road following the release of the British solider Lee Clegg is, superficially, much like those that appeared for decades in newspapers and magazines. But in McKernan’s image an intimate relationship with the place trumps the violence. This is very much a Peace Process riot. Plastic milk bottles have replaced Molotov cocktails and one is caught in mid-flight, hovering above the roof-tops. McKernan’s is a domesticated and melancholy version of a riot photograph, an alternative to the melodrama of the mainstream press.
While McKernan and many others were using the techniques of photojournalism to produce an indigenous and more empathetic way of seeing Northern Ireland, another version of photography was also emerging. From the 1970s on, the art world was gradually beginning to accept that photography could be art as well as reportage. In Northern Ireland photographers emerged from that art tradition with a keen sense that photography could be used to examine their society in ways that were almost the opposite of how photojournalism worked. Instead of seeking out spectacular examples of Troubles violence, they looked at the ordinary and the everyday. Trying to visualise the long-lasting and deep psychological effects of the Troubles, they were more likely to turn to landscape photography rather than portraiture.