Engaging and Unsettling Images

/ Analysis

Photographs appear as representations of reality but can never be truly reliable witnesses. Indeed, as Colin Graham argues: ‘it is the incapacity of photography to provide a detailed inventory of the past or to prove anything’ that makes it such a powerful art form – ‘that makes it worth looking at’ (Graham 2014, p. 19).

The Northern Ireland Historical Photographical Society (NIHPS) is a facebook community that publishes black and white photographic images from towns and cities in Northern Ireland from the 19th century to the present day. The Society recently shared a colour photograph dated 1989, showing a British soldier, crouched on a street in Belfast at eye level to a red-haired child, who appears to be holding a small object in her hands. The photograph, shared among the Society’s almost 40,000 followers had originally been published on the soldier’s own facebook page with the comment:

'I just love this pic of me on the streets of NI 1989. Wonder what she is doing now, if only I could find out where she is now, and who she is, she was giving me a good luck charm, a ribbon from her boot, that meant a lot to me at that time out there'

The NIHPS asked if any of its followers recognized the little girl, prompting an almost immediate response of over 4,000 shares, 1505 likes and 140 comments.

This facebook photograph and posts show the potential of photography to act as a catalyst for discussion, storytelling and sharing and reconciliation. Whilst many exceptional photographers worked in Northern Ireland during the years of the conflict, whose photographs are held in national collections and whose work has featured in landmark exhibitions and books, countless anonymous photographers captured “ordinary” images of day-to-day life across the country long before the concepts of “citizen journalists”, “bloggers” and camera photo-streams came into being. These photos from point and shoot and instamatic cameras would be taken to the chemist or the corner shop, where a week later the glossy prints would be returned, to be shown round the family. Recording weddings, parties, anniversaries and street scenes, frequently with the backdrop of the ever present "Troubles", these “snaps” frequently lay forgotten in drawers or in albums. Rediscovered and re-examined, the images brought back old memories of the mixture of good and bad times that spoke to the remembered experience of many people in Northern Ireland across the three decades of conflict.

The public comments in response to this photograph show deep emotional connections with the past, expressed as a shared interest in helping this soldier meet the woman again after 3 decades. Almost without exception, the comments expressed positive reactions to the photograph with many reading a message of hope – ‘something positive to come out of the troubles’ - and reconciliation in the ‘beautiful picture’ of the soldier and the child ‘taking time to stop and talk to each other’ amidst the ‘madness’ of the conflict:

'What a wonderful world we would have if this kindness were to continue. Beautiful story, no hate, no sectarian just pure kindness'

Many expressed hope that the soldier would find the girl, and joy in learning that the two had been reunited. Dissenting voices were few, but where they arose, they echoed the reality of sectarian division, which provided the historical backstory to the photograph. In one revealing exchange, a commentator observed that the soldier would:

'Hardly find her this side of the fence as writing on the wall states young citizens volunteers'

By introducing a slightly sour note, this comment prompted others to take a more forensic look at the photograph, This, in turn, raised the question of whether the bollard at the end of the alleyway was painted red white and blue (indicating a loyalist area) or green, white and orange (indicating a nationalist area). Whilst the photograph had fostered community involvement in discussing the past and seeking positive outcomes for future community relations, the strange juxtaposition between the green, white and orange colours of the Irish tricolour and the loyalist graffiti on the walls unsettled some of the assumptions of place and identity that might have been suggested at first glance.

In his survey Northern Ireland - 30 Years of Photography (Belfast Exposed/The Mac 2014), Colin Graham explores the distinctive quality of photographic practices that emerged in the confluence between media representation of the conflict, new ideas about the ethics and aesthetics of visual representation and people’s lived and remembered experience. Photography in Northern Ireland has frequently been co-opted into the struggle for political legitimacy that defined the conflict and into the yearning for reconciliation that has defined the peacebuilding process. Photographs both speak to and unsettle our assumptions about the truth of conflict and peace.

Unsettled by the graffiti on the wall and the colours on the bollard, the eye is drawn to a red-haired colleen who might have stepped out of a John Hinde postcard and then to the crouching soldier, as the mind recalls the iconography of vulnerability in the representation of children caught up in war. Photographs represent multiple stories, truths and representations of political and emotional reality. We may cast a more critical eye over newspaper images and political propaganda, but photographs from personal collections cannot be detached from those broader social and political processes of working through the past and linking it to the present and future. In this case, the image of the child becomes a flash point for different claims upon the past and different imaginings of an idealized future.

Photographs appear as representations of reality but can never be truly reliable witnesses. Indeed, as Colin Graham argues: ‘it is the incapacity of photography to provide a detailed inventory of the past or to prove anything’ that makes it such a powerful art form – ‘that makes it worth looking at’ (Graham 2014, p. 19).

Participatory archiving

The Art for Reconciliation research project has identified long standing structural and methodological weaknesses in arts development and funding regimes that have worked against the inclusion, accessibility and understanding of art made in response to the British/Irish conflict and peace process within national collections of contemporary arts. Thus, despite a strong tradition of artistic practices that record and reflect upon on conflict and reconciliation, artworks and collections held by national and regional institutions, community organizations and individual practitioners remain under researched, geographically dispersed, difficult to access, and, in many cases, at risk of disappearing.

The AfR research team has been working with regional and national partners to design a new inter-disciplinary research project aimed at assembling relevant knowledge and expertise to deliver practical solutions for building a common infrastructure to support an accessible and sustainable Virtual Collection of the Art of Conflict and Peace. The aim is to raise awareness of distinctive arts practices that responded to a conflict and its settlement that continues to shape the UK and Ireland. One of the many challenges for building an accessible and inclusive collection arises from the need to enhance digital search functionality through effective systems of categorization, labelling and description of content. The research team have identified social tagging and other participatory data collection models as a potential means of gathering the kind of information users need in order to effectively navigate digital content. In consultation with experienced partners in the sector, we want to engage various users to assist in designing digital search functionality and, via social tagging methods, the labelling and description of content. Tagging is a process that involves linking names and profiles to photographs, posts and comments, familiar to users of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Social tagging is a process of classifying and describing online content through electronic tags or keywords generated collaboratively by individual users rather than specialists. In other words, it is a process of generating shared meaning. This is particularly challenging in the context of a diverse range of art objects and practices, which reflect many different perspectives on the conflict in Northern Ireland and which have emerged in a range of contexts, including museums, galleries, educational settings, ex-combatant and prisoner groups, victims groups, academic research settings and from individual artists and citizens.

Some of the most engaging expressions of the convergence between the certainty and the simulation of reality in the art of conflict and reconciliation are to be found in images of the ordinary and everyday, captured almost in passing - or so it seems - by the amateur or community photographer. One of the questions we must answer is how participatory archiving methods might bring together individual citizens, communities and specialist knowledge in the fields of art and conflict studies to cast a critical eye over these engaging and yet unsettling images and discover new readings of the past that incorporate a positive vision of the future.

Pauline Hadaway is Research Administrator on Arts for Reconciliation research team. Pauline has worked in arts and education since 1990 and was director of Belfast Exposed Photography between 2000 and 2013. In her recently completed doctoral research at the University of Manchester, Pauline explored different uses of arts, heritage and culture as tools for peace building and economic and social reconstruction in Northern Ireland. Publications include, ‘Re-imagining Titanic, re-imaging Belfast’ in Relaunching Titanic: memory and marketing in the ‘post -conflict city’, Routledge, 2013 and ‘Escaping the Panopticon’ in Photography Reframed: visions in photographic culture, I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Ken Bartley is co-owner of the ArtisAnn Gallery and Chair of the Digital Arts Studios in Belfast. He was previously a manager at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, where one of the projects he managed was the Troubles Archive an online archive of art related to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

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