When someone asks me what it was like growing up during the Troubles, I always find myself at a loss for an answer. Day-to-day life in Armagh was uneasy and anxious but sometimes surreal and often repetitive.
There were bombs and bomb scares, gunfire in the night, early-morning raids by the security forces, and the wearying presence of British army foot patrols and their constant scrutiny. But there were also countless days when there was nothing to do and nowhere to go.
All this comes to mind as I grapple with Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a dauntingly ambitious photobook by Gilles Peress, a photographer whose visceral reportage from Iran, Rwanda and the Balkans has redefined the form. Nothing he has published so far, though, comes close to the epic scale of this almost Joycean attempt to “describe everything” about life as it unfolded during the long years of violence in Northern Ireland.
There are sequences of people drinking in crowded bars, chatting on the streets and tending to their gardens, as well as people protesting, building barricades and hurling Molotov cocktails
More than 30 years in the making, it comprises two hefty volumes of images and an accompanying almanac of contextual material, entitled Annals of the North. Weighing 14kg and stretching to 2,000 pages, it is, to say the least, a grand statement.
As such, the book constantly pushes against the limits of photographic representation in its attempts to convey the totality of what Peress, who is now 74, experienced during his two prolonged stays in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and early 1980s. There are sequences of people drinking in crowded bars, chatting on the streets and tending to their gardens, as well as people protesting, building barricades and hurling Molotov cocktails.
Peress even casts a detached eye on the leisure pursuits of the upper-middle classes: foxhunting and flower shows, bowling tournaments and cricket matches, all of which seem to be happening in a parallel universe to the violence and upheaval. That they happened at all, though, is his point – normal life continued beside and amid the conflict and the carnage.
The narrative is structured around 22 semi-fictional “days”: days of struggle, days of killing, days of mourning, but also days that are ordinary and uneventful. This disruption of chronology and context can be disorienting, perhaps wilfully so, the images unfolding in a kind of tumultuous flow, by turns visceral, quiet, unsettling, intimate and arresting. His purpose is to show “the nature and structure of time” during a period of sustained conflict.
“Time in Northern Ireland,” Peress told his publisher, Gerhard Steidl, in a recent interview, “is the same as time in Palestine. It does not move in a linear way – today, tomorrow, last year and so on. Because of the cycle of the marches and the protests, today is today, but it is also the same day as a year ago.”
This sense of time being measured in cyclical, repetitive rituals is central to the book’s conceptual conceit, the narrative ebbing and flowing to its own internal rhythm, tumult giving way to calm, reportage from the frontlines of rioting and protest suddenly shifting to sequences that are quietly observant or darkly atmospheric.
An extended series, shot at night, features deserted urban backstreets and alleyways, liminal spaces fraught with uncertainty. It brings back to me the eerie silence that descended on Northern Ireland’s towns and villages after dark during the worst years of the Troubles. When a lone figure appears out of the shadows, standing motionless and staring directly at Peress’s camera, the sense of foreboding is palpable.
In one startling image Peress isolates two youths in balaclavas, petrol bombs in hand. The eyes of one of them lock on him as he presses the shutter, and you can't help wondering what words were exchanged
There are, perhaps inevitably, one or two jarring moments. A series of grainy screenshots from The Informer, a 1935 John Ford film about betrayal set in the early years of the Irish War of Independence, is an oddly tangential precursor to a section in which Peress broaches the death of Denis Donaldson, his close friend and travelling companion during his time in the North. In 2006, Donaldson, a member of the IRA, was outed as a spy for MI5 and executed.
His double life was unknown to Peress at the time, which goes some way to explaining the book’s title, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a reference to a warning printed on IRA posters widely distributed in republican areas of Belfast in the 1970s. (It is perhaps better known as the title of a famous Seamus Heaney poem about secrecy and silence during the Troubles.)
A section of Annals of the North entitled Betrayals provides much-needed context here and, indeed, for most of the events Peress photographed. It can also be bought independently; in its merging of text and images, considered opinion and scholarship, it is in itself an often audacious take on the tumult of Troubles.
Peress’s iconoclastic approach works best when applied to the bigger tribal rituals of protest, resistance and mourning, the scenes he captures at different times attaining a kind of grim familiarity when grouped together. He has an unerring ability to capture small human interactions within the bigger communal dramas.
In one startling image he isolates two youths in balaclavas standing on a street corner, petrol bombs in hand. The eyes of one of them lock on him as he presses the shutter, and you can’t help wondering what words were exchanged in the ensuing moments. In another he homes in on two cemetery workers at an IRA funeral, one standing, lost in thought, above an open grave, while the other peers up from its depths.
It seems unsurprising, then, that Peress began to see the Troubles as a kind of theatrical drama being endlessly played out by the same cast of archetypal characters in recurring scenes of violence and escape, bravado and mourning. Inevitably, the dead of the Troubles haunt these pages: young men in dark glasses and berets stand sentinel over open coffins; crowds line the routes of funeral processions and congregate amid crosses and gravestones in cemeteries. But it is the anguished faces of the bereaved that register the trauma.
Peress seems to have worked to Robert Capa’s dictum, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” no more so than when he found himself in the midst of the carnage of what would come to be known as Bloody Sunday, in Derry in 1972. His photographs from that day were used as evidence in the Saville Inquiry, which found the killings unlawful, and they remain the most visceral evocations of the horror. He photographed a local man, Paddy Doherty, crawling along a street near Rossville Flats seconds before he was shot dead by a paratrooper. His graphic image of another local, Barney McGuigan, lying dead in a pool of blood while shocked onlookers stand over him in stunned disbelief, distills the day’s horrors in a single frame.
“I know that, at one point, I was shooting and crying at the same time,” Peress said years later. “I think it must’ve been when I saw Barney McGuigan dead. By the time I had reached him, people were still huddling by the telephone box, protecting themselves from the shooting.”
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is a singular achievement, by turns raw and tender, quietly reflective and gut-wrenchingly emotional. All human life is here as it was lived during the Troubles
In a book that evokes time passing in a spiralling, repetitive, irregular way, these stilled moments seem even more resonant, the unsettling power of their first-hand testimony undimmed by the passing years. A decade later Peress found himself chronicling the aftermath of the deaths of 10 IRA hunger strikers, the days of mourning, grieving, protest and violence repeating and intensifying, his images of the same loaded with familiar signifiers, but their atmosphere darker, more claustrophobic.
Turning these pages, you feel the full weight of Peress’s helicoidal time: history repeating, violence feeding off violence, the deaths of one generation inspiring another.
In its elaborate ambition, Peress’s book constantly pushes against the constrictions of the photobook, yet by doing so it also highlights them. More than once I find myself imagining these narratives unfolding and overlapping in a multiscreen installation to an ambient soundtrack of protests, riots, marching bands and inflammatory speeches. Against that immersive approach, a book, however elaborately structured, seems an oddly static medium in which to reflect the spiralling nature of the Troubles.
That it costs so much – €425 – will also be an issue for many of the people for whom it will mean the most. That said, it is without question a singular achievement, by turns raw and tender, quietly reflective and gut-wrenchingly emotional. All human life is here as it was lived during the Troubles. This is what reality looks like during an unreal time. – Guardian
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, by Gilles Peress, is published by Stiedl; you can buy it here