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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 15 Summer 1998 - Review Page - It's Your Decision? - Review by Richard West.

It's Your Decision?
Review by Richard West

Source - Issue 15 - Summer - 1998 - Click for Contents

Issue 15 Summer 1998
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The photograph used on the cover of the political agreement has been sent to every household in Northern Ireland and has been used on posters advertising the May 22nd referendum. As a ubiquitous image, and one carrying such political significance, questions were immediately asked as to its origins and efficacy. Attempts to discover who had taken the picture and where they had taken it have proved laborious.

There is no telling how many people think in this way but my attempts to enjoy this reverie were destroyed by the thought that the sun sets in the west, the family must be on a west coast and that Northern Ireland does not have a west coast. Why should an advertising agency wish to suggest that if I made the correct decision I would be transported away from my home? And where exactly were they suggesting I be transported?

The first place I looked for an answer to these questions was the inside of the agreement itself, but I could find no mention of who was responsible for either the photograph or the design. I was to discover that just as the image bore no trace of its origins the closer I came to its creators the less idea they had of its new life in Northern Ireland politics. Thus when I called the photo library in London who had supplied the image they declared themselves disappointed that they were not referred to; having specified in their terms and conditions that they must be acknowledged. Even more surprising, the photographer who had taken the picture had no idea of the use to which his work was being put, until I explained it to him.

Having been given the name of the advertising agency I had called them to be told that it had not occurred to them that the photograph implied anything other than feelings of general well-being. Presumably we were to experience this west coast as a geographical generalisation, perhaps representing Northern Ireland's notional west coast. At any rate, it was only when I spoke to the photo library that I discovered that the photographer was German, living in Hamburg; and it was only when I spoke to the photographer himself that I learnt that the photograph showed the beach in Cape Town, South Africa.

Roger Ellis had been living in South Africa in 1996 and had gone down to the beach with four models to take the picture. The photograph bears the title: Family standing on rock on beach at sunset, rear view, silhouette, and has been cropped on the right in its Northern Ireland incarnation depriving us of some more red sky and a few wisps of cloud. This then, is what I was promised if I were to make the right decision.

Ironically at that moment I enjoyed the distinction of being the person who most completely understood the meaning of the image on the agreement; it seems very unlikely that the advertising agency knew where the photograph had been taken, it was only I that had seen both the packaging and the present within. Both the photographer and the advertising agency had conspired in superficiality; the photographer by creating an image that might be used in any context, the agency through a studied ignorance of what it actually depicted. I doubt these approaches produce either good photography or good advertising.

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