INNOCENT LANDSCAPES REVISITED: 20 / OCT / 2009
INNOCENT LANDSCAPES - BACKGROUND
Posted by David Farrell
In thirty years of conflict and atrocity in Northern Ireland a small group of people stood apart: they were the missing, the Disappeared - absent and yet somehow still present. Even their exact number was uncertain though it was thought that there were at least 15 people whose whereabouts had remained shrouded in misinformation and doubt since the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Despite considerable obfuscation it was considered that their fate and whereabouts was directly linked to what was colloquially known as the Troubles. Apart from Capt. Robert Nairac, an undercover British Soldier they were all Catholic and widely assumed to have been 'disappeared' by the IRA through a process of internal policing of the movement and the wider catholic community. What separated this group from other 'policings' was the silence, the denial and the absence of a returned body for uncertain relatives. This renunciation continued for over twenty-five years.On 27th May 1999 as a result of the ongoing peace process, the IRA issued a statement in which they apologised and accepted the "injustice of prolonging the suffering of victim’s families" and admitted what they termed "the killing and secret burial" of ten people. Despite internal enquiries they had only managed to locate the burial places of nine people;Brian McKinney, John McClory, Danny McIlhone, Brendan Megraw,Jean Mc Conville, Kevin McKee, Seamus Wright, Columba McVeigh andEamonn Molloy.The locations - Colgagh, Ballynultagh, Oristown, Templetown, Wilkinstown, Bragan, and Faughart contained a simple but final bitter twist - they were all located in the South of Ireland. This small group of people had been exiled in death creating a poignant and, as time progressed, what could be termed a haunting internal diaspora. This became evident when on May 20th 2000 the digs, now in their second phase, were suspended: three remains had been located, three closures permitted leaving the remaining families with a site rather than a spot, a closing rather than a closure.I had followed the searches that were carried out in 1999 and 2000 and the resulting photographs were published in a volume entitled Innocent Landscapes in 2001 as a result of winning the European Publishers Award for Photography. However I couldn’t walk away from this work - for one thing there was the unresolved nature of the searches, as only three remains had been recovered. So, every year, usually towards the end of the Summer I would revisit these locations making photographs of a ‘healing’ landscape and witness the evidence that they had been searched slowly subsume under nature. In the back of my mind I had said to myself that I would try to do this for ten years. However, as it happened, this turning back of time within these landscapes was not as straightforward as I thought it would be and fresh wounds and the re-opening of scars would occur over succeeding years.
My first visit to a 'site' was on a beautiful evening in late July 1999, I travelled from the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan with a local guide heading for Colgagh, where three weeks earlier the remains of Brian McKinney and John McClory had been found. For the last few miles of the journey the road weaved in and out of the North and the South and as we got closer my guide became a little confused, as if his recent memory of this now significant landscape was somehow being tested. It was a rather blunt introduction to the notion of 'landscape and memory'. We made wrong turns and drove past several times before eventually finding the small lane that would lead us to the site. It was an idyllic, rural, summer evening - birds singing, cattle in fields; a typically Irish (beautiful) 'innocent landscape', tranquil and calm. We walked slowly towards the 'spot', now marked by a large stone and a crude wooden cross. The contradictory feelings of presence and loss were intense - overwhelming. We were silent for some time, before I began to make a few perfunctory photographs - my attempt to deal with the sensations and emotions I felt. But my camera was not its usual shield. Here was a paradox of beauty and savagery, tranquility and sorrow. I knew immediately I would have to return, perhaps many times, to be able to deal with it. My initial response upon visiting Colgagh was visceral, It was a few weeks after the discovery of the remains of those two young men and there was in many ways 'nothing' to photograph; well certainly nothing in a conventional documentary mode - however the violated landscape jarred me. It seemed to be a powerful metaphor for the violence that had taken place there over twenty years ago that only now had become visible by the scarification of the land during the search process - I left thinking 'people must see this'. Somehow this small group of people epitomised the complexities of political violence - where a society becomes so brutalised that it starts to murder its own in the pursuit of 'rights' of its people - a process that will probably take generations of both remembering and forgetting before it can be left behind and a true healing begin.
There was also this issue of a dark stain lurking under the perceived 'peaceful' landscapes of the South and a thread that connected most of the sites, both topographically and somewhat conceptually to the nature of photography itself, a link that is in many ways an essence of the Irish Landscape - the bog, that memory bank, that witness of history and trauma. The writer Terry Eagleton has commented on the bog as revealing "the past as still present" and that objects contained within them are "caught in a living death". Innocent Landscapes - like many works that deal with violence and commemoration and in particular those that are by default utilising what has been termed as late photography - contains a number of dilemmas. How do you photograph something that was intended to remain unseen? How do you photograph something where the experiences undergone by the disappeared were meant to be outside of memory and denied to those who experienced them? How do you photograph 'nothing' in the hope that it will trigger a response? How do you photograph what might be called the intangible presence of absence? I think with hindsight my way of dealing with this late issue is/was to get to know these places by inhabiting them physically and psychologically through a process of 'walking the land' and re-photographing them over and over again.
As I began to visit these sites I was struck by their beauty and at first this 'beauty' issue troubled me. Would it be possible to essentially aestheticise violence in a meaningful way? Could I usurp this beauty and turn it back against itself? Early within the work I had a chance meeting with Margaret McKinney (mother of Bryan) at the site in Colgagh, where she said that "she had felt a sense of relief when Bryan had been found with nature in such a beautiful place" made me realize that the location of place for an absent memory and an intense loss was central to relatives and to this unfolding project - that an inherent, almost romantic beauty, somehow acted as a comfort cloak of reflection. I slowly became aware that I was possibly also questioning the mediums ability to not only 'furnish evidence' but also its limits on remembering, representing and commemorating traumatic historical events. In the end all I felt I could do was bear witness in order to make the viewer bear witness to what was essentially a framed absence.Such thoughts and observations have emerged within me over time and sometimes when one presents a work like this it may appear 'what a clever guy he knew all this before he started' - I didn't - whatever 'depth' may exist in this body of work is only present because I have spent a considerable amount of time working on, thinking about and occasionally presenting this project so that it now has a shape beyond my initial struggle which began with the simple problem of basically finding what were usually small townlands, barely on a map, places that you might drive through before you realized you had and another simple fundamental photographic problem of working with light and time and yourself. It was also my first landscape project in photography so now looking back on it it appears at times a little rough at the edges in that as ever with the passage of time there are possibly images I might remove today but that said I feel its raw edginess suited and continues to fit the subject.As time passed and nature began to reclaim these locations making them disappear from immediate consciousness it comforted me to some extent that my involvement with these sites and the people said to be buried there was not a completely futile artistic gesture of protest in that my photographs would exist as a monument of sorts, an act of remembrance in the face of voracious nature, human forgetfulness and the folly of memory.