In the years between 2002 and 2010 the Belfast-based photography project Belfast Exposed Photography commissioned a number of leading photographers to document contemporary Northern Ireland as it developed in the changed context of ‘peace-building’. By 2002 the historic 1994 ceasefire by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the IRA, or the Provos) was almost a decade old. By 2010 the (Good Friday) peace Agreement (1998) was more than a decade old.
The eight years of commissioned work provides a time-frame within which there were further significant changes in Northern Ireland. On the political front the prime example of this is probably the 1996 St Andrew’s Agreement, which led to a stable power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly in which the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s (SF) Martin McGuinness became respectively First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Assembly. All of these historic events are well documented by photojournalists. The work commissioned by Belfast Exposed takes a different approach. As Stephen Bull notes in his opening essay in the collection: ‘contemporary documentary practice, [is] slower, more reflective… Often choosing the “aftermath” rather than the “decisive moment”’ (pp. 16-17). Each of the photographers commissioned by Belfast Exposed Photography adopted this approach, rather than that of a photojournalist.
Donovan Wylie focused on demilitarisation in two different projects. The first of these – The Maze (2004) – involved photographing the Maze Prison, (better known to many people as Long Kesh or the H-Blocks), many years after its Loyalist and Republican prisoners had been released under the terms of the 1998 peace Agreement, but before demolition work began on the prison. The second – British Watchtowers (2007) – took the military installation posts along the border with the Republic of Ireland as their subject matter. Both of these projects capture an era that has passed, a history that has, quite literally in the case of the watchtowers, been erased from the landscape. These photographs are, however, more than simply documentary evidence, they bring an artistic sensibility which transcends the immediate scenes they document. His photographs of the military surveillance installations are all shot from long range and at eye level with the observation posts (he was able to achieve this – ironically? – by taking the shots from the vantage point of British Army helicopters). These shots position the viewer, in the gallery or as a viewer of the photograph in the catalogue, as someone who is complicit in the act of surveillance. The viewer is placed in a position which mirrors the vantage point afforded by the towers. When the realisation of your positioning as a viewer hits it is disconcerting. A sedate rural scene shifts from verdant to potentially violent. Every hedgerow is simultaneously countryside and camouflage. And you sense that you are simultaneously being watched, and you are the watcher.
The other commissions focused on Belfast, the city at the epicentre of the conflict and the peace process. Each of the six contributors to the book Where are the people? focus on the photographs from Belfast. The book was put together, as Belfast Exposed director Pauline Hadaway says in her introduction, ‘to re-present the photographs in a different moment and to new publics’ (p9). The extensively illustrated book includes six essays, written from a diverse range of perspectives. Ciaran Carson, the Belfast based poet, takes one of the commissions – Ursula Burke and Daniel Jewesbury’s Archive Lisburn Road (2004) – as his inspiration. He provides brief musings to accompany each of twenty photographs he has chosen from their commission. The first photograph in the series is a glass shop front, covered in swirls of semi-opaque white cream, possibly some kind of glass polish.
‘It begins in a fog, the window of memory obscured… Banner after banner billowing in the memory over fifty years ago, Orange music playing over, over, over (p47).
The other nineteen pieces of writing also read like recollections and ramblings, sparked by the image which they accompany.
‘Marlborough is named for the Dukes of Marlborough, a branch of the Spencer family… Lady Diana Spencer… died in a car crash in the Pont d’Alma tunnel in Paris… Alma Street in Belfast was near my former residence in Raglan Street, named for Lord Raglan…’ (p55).
‘Some thirty years ago I lived in a flat on the Lisburn Road with my wife Deidre, though she was not my wife then. Soon after we left for elsewhere … I peer at a dormer through a magnifying glass, trying to remember our former lives in rooms not there’ (p69).
His streams of consciousness pick up pieces of history and deposit them at random angles in the text. Historical lines trickle down through the ages in place names, in family names, and sink to the depths, as his thoughts swirl on. Through his prose he evokes a sense of memory and hauntings, overlappings and interconnections, drift and incompleteness. These are echoed elsewhere, in the texts of the other contributors.
A sense of spectral presence pervades the book. Indeed it is signalled from the opening paragraph of the first contributor. ‘The first two human beings to appear in a photograph are denizens of a city of spectres’ (p11). The contributor, Stephen Bull, bases his comment on one of the earliest know photographic images, Louis Daguerre’s 1839 view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, which records only two human figures – a shoe-shiner and his customer. The relatively long exposure time required for early cameras meant that the bustling crowds on the Paris street were rendered invisible on the photographic plate. Many people passed by while the shutter was open, but their presence was not captured. In the closing essay Aaron Kelly points out that in the photographs of contemporary Belfast – shot by John Duncan (Trees From Germany, 2003), Harri Palviranta (Playing Belfast, 2010) and Kai-Olaf Hesse (Topography of the Titanic, 2007) – the ‘images are shot in such a way as to confer upon Belfast a depopulated barrenness’ (p96). Contemporary shutter speeds may be faster, but the slower, more reflective, contemporary documentary photography seems to be just as incapable of representing people.
In an essay in Fortnight, Northern Ireland’s leading current affairs and liberal arts magazine, Malachi O’Doherty reflects on the photographs commissioned by Belfast Exposed Photography (Fortnight No.471, July/August 2010). He rails against this depopulation in contemporary ‘photographic representations of Belfast’ because, he suggest, they are indicative of the fact that the photographers ‘have shown little regard for people’ (p 24). He contrasts contemporary documentary photography unfavourably with photographs from journalism and portraiture ‘which always sought to have a person in the picture’ (p24). At one level this seems a crass criticism, one which treats the photographs literally, rather than artistically. O’Doherty even asks at one point if these images may be a product of ‘the artist who is afraid to speak plainly?’ (p25).
Yet O’Doherty is aware of the human traces in images in which people are not directly represented. Speaking of Claudio Hils’ interiors (Archive_Belfast, 2004) he notes ‘the suggestion in many of the pictures is of spent or dormant energies’ (p. 25). Many of the contributors to Where are the people? make similar points about the absence of people hinting at something more fundamental about contemporary ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland. Liam O’Dowd, for example, finds a remarkable contrast between the ‘conventional images of the “Troubles”… [which] typically captured streets filled with protesters, rioters, soldiers, police and marchers’ and the ‘traces of uncertain, tenuous and transient claims on public space’ captured in the images produced for Belfast Exposed Photography (p31). Daniel Jewesbury suggests that contemporary artists may have experienced ‘some difficulty working out how to “represent” this peculiar absence of politics in a place that, until so recently, has such an efflorescence of the very visibly political’ (p40). A number of authors argue that an apolitical consumerism has supplanted democratic engagement. Liam O’Dowd, for example, says that with ‘the “commodification of everything”, the “right to the city” is being reduced to the “right to consume” it’ (p35). Aaron Kelly, in the closing paragraph of the collection, proclaims that the ‘lack of visibility of people in these collections of photography impels us to acknowledge that the wrong things are being emphasised in the Peace Process to date. People matter more than profit’ (p. 104-5).
We could end the review here. We can provide an answer to the question posed by the title of the book – Where are the people?. The people are a spectral presence in the pictures because they are a spectral presence in the city. They are passive consumers in the present, not history-making subjects. The photographers have managed, sometimes hauntingly, to capture this.
And yet, this seems unsatisfactory. As unsatisfactory as the condition that it describes.
Malachi O’Doherty can be accused of missing the point. But he also points to something important. Which we should not miss. Most of the contemporary documentary photographers of Belfast are complicit in the marginalisation of the people.
Daniel Jewesbury notes a: ‘widespread movement in photography, whereby the veracity (and even the usefulness) of the documentary image was questioned, and then found never to have existed in the first place’ (p38). This crisis of representation in photography mirrors the different kind of crisis of representation in contemporary democracy. The people are without an image, and the people are without a voice. The long-distance, (and middle-distance), camera shots are analogous to the aloofness of political elites. The remarkable similarity of style amongst the photographers echoes the lack of political alternatives on offer. The many sterile images evince the lack of inspiring political leadership.
The flailing of the political class finds its artistic counterpart in the way that documentary photographers have proceeded, as Dewesbury puts it, ‘in a more crablike manoeuvre toward their subject, as if by indirection they might, finally, be able to find direction out’ (p38). The endless questioning of the veracity of the documentary image has robbed documentary photographers of the ability to make judgements. They have no solid ground on which to take a stand, and then move forward.
Many of the stances proffered are illusory, or backward. The critique of consumerism is an attack on a phantom. The ideology of consumption has cashed in on the space opened-up by the exit of political ideology. It temporarily fills shelf space where once there was substance. The critique of consumerism can easily slide into the snobbish critique of consumers, the dopes who have been duped. Shallow consumerism does not appeal because the people are shallow, it sells because there is little else on offer. Consumerism can even be preferable to some of the available alternatives. Liam O’Dowd is insightful when he suggests that in Northern Ireland the ‘embrace of consumption is all the more intense because… it appears to offer an escape from the relentless zero-sum politics of sectarian or ethno-national division’ (p35).
And there are other ways in which documentary photographers are complicit in the marginalisation of the people. A debilitating concern with the ethics of representation places major barriers between photographers and the people. The ethics of photography is often presented as motivated by a concern for the people. The advocates of ethics warn against exploiting or in other ways harming photographic subjects. At one level how could anyone object to this? But what do we mean by exploitation? And how do we judge, in advance, whether harm will be caused? Photographing human subjects, as Pauline Hadaway points out, is a form of human interaction, and like ‘any form of human interaction, from striking up a conversation, to exchanging a smile, the intention behind making a photograph, spontaneous or considered, often remains unresolved or even unknown to those involved in the exchange’ (2009, Policing the Public Gaze: The Assault on Citizen Photography, Manifesto Club 2009, p16). The attempt to foreground ethical concerns acts as a brake on human interaction. It places a consent form between the photographer and their human subjects.
Photographs which do not directly portray people are ethically safe, but that does not mean that they are ethical. Too often a concern with ethics is a cover for timidity. High-minded ethics can belie a low opinion of humanity. Too often those who are most vociferous in their claims to high ethical standards do so because they start from the premise that people are vulnerable. In a historical context replete with moral uncertainty a concern with ethics can too easily translate into an evasion of the people. These are wider problems, ones that extend well beyond the relatively small circles of professional documentary photography. They can be seen in the anxieties over street photography and the paranoia about photographing children.
Ethical concerns can just as easily be motivated by an evasion of responsibility, as they can by a desire to capture the displacement of people from history-making. The absence of people in documentary photography can be an accurate picture of the position of the people in contemporary society, but this absence can also amount to an attempt to evade the question Where are the people?
So where are the people? Good question. And we won’t find the answer unless we engage with the people. And it seems the people are speaking out. They have got opinions about photography and freedom. Campaigns against school bans on photographing nativity plays show signs of people saying they, not the authorities, can decide what is appropriate. Campaigns such as this should be welcomed because they challenge the culture of distrust of other people.
Photographers are challenging increasing restrictions too. An initiative such as I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist is a welcome attempt to protect the freedom to photograph in public space. A robust public sphere requires the people to have freedom from the intervention of the state, not to have the state intervening in the name of protecting us from other people.
There are signs that documentary photographers are beginning to question the self-confining approaches that they have taken to the relationship between photography practice and the people. The current issue of Photoworks take photography and protest as its theme. As the people make themselves visible on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Athens, Madrid … the theme is timely. It also provides an opportunity to rethink photography practice. As Photoworks editor, Gordon MacDonald, says:
it seems timely … to look at photography in a different way; to temporarily reject the idea of photography as its own subject, or even as a subject at all, and to instead view it as a vehicle for ideas, responses and protests in the hands of the visually and politically articulate… Now, more than ever before, images have the potential to help to force change in the right hands or to pose extreme threat in the wrong ones. They are a global political and social currency. I feel it is our urgent duty both as citizens and professionals to explore, to engage with, to debate and to understand this subject area.
I’m pleased to say that I don’t agree with everything that MacDonald says here. Especially pleased because I don’t have an answer, and I think that it is important that we open up a debate.
Where are the people? It’s a good question. But it still needs a good answer.