Photo Works North Responds to David Lee
by Jim Maginn
The following extract is from an article originally published in The British Journal of Photography on June 25th 1992. It was in response to a paragraph in an article by David Lee (Circles of Confusion) which appeared in B.J.P. on May 7th 1992.
"I heard recently of plans to open a new photographic gallery in Belfast. I can't see the point in opening another photography venue in Belfast when there is already one in Dublin - which, though in a different country, draws on the same constituency, and which has difficulty attracting work of a consistently acceptable standard. The limited public monies available for photography are already spread too thinly across too many galleries and too many magazines."
I feel compelled to respond to some points raised in David Lee's "Circles of Confusion" article Surprisingly given his adopted home, the title could easily refer to his paragraph on photography in Ireland. This is in contrast to his usually well informed comment. My observations deal with some of his notions about photography on this Island.
I am the current chair of Photo Works North. The group behind the campaign to get better recognition for photography in Northern Ireland. Contrary to the impression he gives in his reference to our efforts, a gallery is a small but vital part of our plans and not our only goal. We plan to establish a centre dedicated to the promotion of excellence in photography in Northern Ireland not just "another" gallery space and it will certainly be the only one of its kind here. This is apart from our community outreach programme which is designed to make photography accessible to communities throughout the six counties and not just Belfast. All this information and more is available to any academic, journalist or anyone with an interest.
While any contribution to the debate is welcome I find his observations disappointing. Perhaps he is trying to generate discussion through your pages. That would be a positive development but instead he demonstrates an amazing lack of understanding of the unique circumstances in this divided community.
He seems to imply that public funds destined for Northern Ireland from the British government and European agencies should be used to support the Irish Gallery of Photography Dublin to the exclusion of groups in the North. A comparable notion would be that England's Northern Arts redirect the three quarters of a million pounds it spent on photography, film and video in 1990 to fund a facility in London or Paris. This might be possible in an ideal world or even the almost new Europe but it ignores the realities of Northern Ireland and is at best a naive notion.
Another question he needs to address is what the Gallery of Photography Dublin has been doing to promote photography in the six counties for the past twelve years? To my knowledge apart from showing work by northern photographers, no workshops, talks, exhibitions, seminars, conferences or anything of that nature has been arranged by Dublin for this side of the border.
Far from being a criticism of DubIin it simply acknowledges the facts. Why should they spend their limited resources here when Northern Ireland spends more on the Arts per head of population than the South? Of course it should not be forgotten that Northern Ireland has less arts funding per head of population than the rest of Britain and traditionally photography has had a struggle getting a share of that.
Far from having a common constituency as David Lee suggests the demands and needs of the community have never and will never be met by a single facility whether it is based in Dublin or Belfast. I believe this view is shared by most of those involved in the debate north and south of the border.
What Lee fails to recognise is that with the establishment of an independent group of photographers in Northern Ireland they have asserted their right to be heard in the international forum. That need has never been satisfied before. Photo Works North is dealing with that. Our efforts are continuing to bare fruit and that can only serve as a good thing for Photography in Northern Ireland as well as further afield. I hope this is the last time anyone will have to defend the existence of groups like Photo Works North. Our members will continue to confront political issues through their work but as a group we strive to be apolitical.
Implicit in his remarks is also the notion that photographers and artists using photography living and working here like Paul Seawright, Victor Sloan, Peter Neill, Errol Forbes, Willie Docherty and Terry Loane to name a few, should be showing their work in Dublin and not to their immediate community. Why shouldn't they want to show their work here?
There are a lot of other points Lee makes which I have problems with but I have restricted myself to his comments as they relate to Photo Works North. Nothing would please me more than to see a dedicated gallery space in every large town and city in the British Isles. That is some way off for Belfast but surely making facilities available on such a scale should be the desire of everyone committed to the promotion of excellence in our chosen field. In the mean time Photo Works North is trying to build bridges and give photography a voice for the first time in Northern Ireland. We have members from all sections of the community and are only effective because of this wide base. Ill informed comments like those of David Lee make that work harder in an already difficult environment.