Alternatives to Propaganda
Strategies of Representation in Fine Art Photography and the Media in Northern Ireland
by Fiona Kearney
The work of Willie Doherty, Paul Graham and more recently, Paul Seawright, has been widely acclaimed as a critical response to the way in which Northern Ireland has been represented in the mass media for the last thirty years. Their photographs are seen as an alternative to the propaganda of conflict perpetuated in newspaper coverage of the violence. These images record the spaces beyond any actual confrontation and stage the legacy of the North's hostile histories in a different context. It is a fragmented vision, deliberately at a tangent to the almost cliched pictures of bitter and dangerous encounters circulated by the world's press. Doherty, Graham and Seawright construct new and subversive perspectives of the political setting in which they work. The photographs, however, are defined by their opposition to the visual rhetoric of photojournalism and as such establish a binary culture of representation between fine art photography and the print media. This article will consider how this dialogue between two photographic positions has developed in recent years and how the wider understanding of the photograph as a constructed image has influenced the production of contemporary images in Northern Ireland.
Fine art photography in the North has continued to privilege an aesthetic of absence. Willie Doherty's recent work has created a highly charged imagery out of the traces of destruction. Photographs such as Abandoned Interior III, 1997, depict the spatial casualties of violence, the deserted sites and discarded remains of struggles routinely reported in the press. The demolished world depicted here is characterised by the absence of human activity. The riotous scenes of angry crowds are the property of front page stories. This is the moment between the headlines; the aftermath of the tumultuous street fights or the uneasy quiet of an all too tenuous peace. The suspense is in the detail. The close up view of some kind of incendiary device in Uncovering Evidence that the War is Not Over I, 1995, visualizes the peril of the conflict in the dark undergrowth of a wet green field. The danger is everywhere. A similar strategy is employed by John Duncan in his series of photographs, Be Prepared. The title cautions the viewer, vigilance perhaps required to navigate the streets of Belfast. The motto of Baden-Powell's boy scouts heightens our attention to the seemingly innocuous content recorded by the pictures. The work is both sinister in its call to scrutinise every situation as a possible threat and darkly comic in its ultimate failure to discern any real danger. Duncan withholds the menace of the hazardous apparatus revealed in Doherty's work or the ominous signs of territorial divisions glimpsed in Graham's photography. The tension in these photographs derives from a Beckettian lack of action and Duncan's work plays out the endgame of neglected spaces as a potent expression of the impoverishment of a society at war. In one image we see a corrugated iron roof littered with stones. The viewer is perhaps reminded of the children's rhyme: 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' with the obvious irony that in the North a name can identify one as Catholic or Protestant and each stone lying strewn on the roof there could indeed designate a victim of sectarian violence. Duncan aptly closes his Be Prepared series with the image of a single brick wall in the middle of green scrubland. The meandering gaze of the camera literally comes to halt against a brick wall. The wall fills the photograph, a dominant grey presence in the sunlit field and a possible metaphor for the deadlocks encountered over territorial divisions in Northern Ireland.
There are no human figures in this work. Absence as a metaphor for loss is also a feature of the vacant spaces framed by Mary McIntyre. The title of one of her duratran lightboxes, An Object which tells us of Loss, 1998, indicates how these works might be read. In this image, the artist depicts both an empty chair and a bare hospital stretcher. In the peripheral room of an anonymous institution, the waiting is over and all that remains is the vacuum of life. There is nothing in this picture to situate the work in a specific location but inevitably context shapes interpretation and we may perceive the photograph as a metaphorical register of the human loss in Northern Ireland's recent past. Similarly with Chambers. 1998, we inform the interior of the council chamber with the language of Northern Irish politics and the difficulty of uniting political adversaries around the same table in constitutional talks. The understated quality of this work is a powerful antidote to the bombastic discourse of newspaper reports. It is different too from Paul Graham's photographs of cloud formations, which derive their political force from captions such as Shankill, Belfast, Ceasefire April 1994, which both title and locate each image. Graham's art has a hint of the sublime which is resolutely absent from Duncan and McIntyre's work. These artists eschew any romantic engagement with the land. They do not wish to claim any transcendence for one particular viewpoint for that would be to enter into the construction of the very myth they wish to undermine.
Another strategy developed by artists to address the representations of Catholic and Protestant communities in the North has been to deliberately ignore religious, political and social difference and concentrate instead on the idea of a shared identity. In Caroline Molloy's work, this common denominator is a female experience of the Troubles. Molloy photographs her subjects in a frontal pose against a plain black background in an attempt to efface markers which might situate these women within a specific ethnic group. Paul Quinn undertakes a similar project in his photographs taken in a barber's shop, literally placing his sitter's identity under wraps. These indentikit pictures achieve a unity of expression through the framing devices of the camera, however, there is also the suggestion that cultural difference must be sacrificed in order for this to occur. The sameness constructed and stressed in these pictures denies individual affiliations and so the photographic moment neuters rather than resolves difference.
The need to find an alternative to the stereotypical documentary reportage of community in the North has perhaps found its most considered expression in the work of photographers such as Paul Seawright and Patrick McCoy. In their work, traditional identities are repositioned but not dislocated from their immediate surroundings. Paul Seawright's two photographic series, The Orange Order and Police Force demystify the conventional depictions of these militant organisations presented in the mass media. Seawright uses oblique viewpoints and unusual angles of vision, often approaching his subjects from behind in a deliberate countering of the direct address of much documentary imagery. These views intentionally fragment the body and thus acknowledge that the photograph is always a partial record and a fleeting moment in an ongoing life. As with Duncan, it is the series itself, which matters. Rather than an isolated segment, each image can be read as a constituent part and the photographic testimony lies in the sequence taken as a whole.
The documentary photographer is generally understood as a fly on the wall presence, providing special access to the subject at hand without implicating the significance of the camera's gaze. In Seawright's imagery, the awkward positioning of his shots reflects the difficulty of the photographer's role. Patrick McCoy also subverts the documentary mode by bringing his subjects into an almost uncomfortable proximity with the viewer. McCoy's photographs are taken inside the notorious Black Taxis, a mythologized presence on the streets of Belfast. This penetration of a space usually seen from the outside has much in common with Seawright's work behind the closed doors of the RUC. The sense of confinement imposed by the interior of the taxi setting evokes the claustrophobic climate of the conflict in the North. The people in the back seat, however, have an irrepressible individuality, which withstands their tightly enclosed setting and suggests a resistance to the forces of containment which shape their everyday lives. The neatly framed back window of the taxi affords us definite reminders of the city as a patrolled and divided territory, in one image we can see the top of an army watchtower. Nonetheless, the focus remains on the human interaction of how people choose to share this very small space. In this extraordinary sequence of photographs, McCoy has found a way to signify the particular location of Belfast without sensationalising its influence on the lives of its inhabitants.
Patrick McCoy's photographs were created out of the need to provide an 'antidote to the spectacular images produced by visiting foreign photojournalists'. The statement could apply to most of the photographers under discussion here. The understanding of the way in which the mass media have privileged a certain reading of the Troubles has encouraged artists in Northern Ireland to seek new strategies of expression. It is necessary though to see this response as part of a continuing dialogue with the press image. Mainstream photojournalists have perhaps always been aware of the controlling power of the photographic lens. Writing in 1972 of his experience of the 'Battle of the Bogside', staff photographer for the Sun, Clive Limpkin, observed that, 'the covering journalist not only runs the risk of being "used" in propaganda exercises, but also in creating and prolonging rioting by his very presence'. Until recently, however, there was not any self-conscious attempt made to include this gaze in newspaper coverage of events in the North. On August 15th 1989, The Independent published a front page picture which finally gave visual definition to Limpkin's remarks. The photograph depicts a cluster of journalists around a group of children throwing stones. The performative nature of the aggressive action is revealed as one almost entirely constructed for the photographer's lens.
According to Roland Barthes, 'A good press photograph makes ready play with the supposed knowledge of its readers' and increasingly this readership is aware of the constructed nature of the photograph. The photograph's status as evidence has also been threatened by the advent of digital technologies that can alter the actual contents of an image without compromising the realism of its appearance. During the events at Drumcree in July this year, photographs appeared in The Irish Times and The Guardian newspapers which exhibited an appreciation both of the atmosphere of surveillance which prevailed as the stand off continued, and the role of the media in the creation of the event as another critical moment in the North's recent history. Although it was a particularly violent period, the photographs published were predominantly images of waiting and watching. From the rather humorous picture of an Orangeman weary in his vigil with only his umbrella still standing resolutely in the ground beside him to the photograph of an RUC officer stretched out reading a book on the INLA, the images reflect the tension of the stand off without recourse to the numerous clashes which occurred at the time. Police statistics from 6am July 4th to 6am July 10th report 1,867 public disorder incidents, 550 attacks on security forces including 15 shooting incidents and 33 bomb attacks, 548 petrol bombings, 103 houses damages, 133 other buildings damaged, 367 vehicles attacked. From July 4th to 6am on July 9th, 216 plastic bullets were fired. Press photography here seems aware of its role in shaping the history of the conflict and the need to avoid any undue glorification of the Orangemen's cause. Confrontation is of course still illustrated but these demonstrations are tempered by the pictures of watchful individuals often aware of the media gaze. In one photograph, an Orangeman directly eyes the viewer through a pair of binoculars so that we seem to be the object of his scrutiny. This is a conventional art historical device but its significance here is that it offers an acknowledgement of the eye of the camera. The final photograph of the stand off to appear in the Irish Times was of a TV crew member gathering cables at Drumcree as some of the world's media began to pull out. This would seem to be a visual admission of the presence and importance of the media in the documentation of the Troubles.
The representation of surveillance and the implication of the camera's gaze within these photographs are an indication of the expanding self-reflexivity of newspaper reportage. This, as Barthes indicated, makes play with the knowledge of an increasingly sophisticated audience conscious of the structuring methods of any photographic reproduction. The contemporary image in Northern Ireland is one that is profoundly aware of the performative nature of community identities. The theatricality of ritual roles stressed in Victor Sloan's Act of Faith pictures is now given form in newspaper pictures. The image of John Hume as he acclaims the Good Friday agreement recalls Christian iconography. The SDLP leader is caught eyes turned up to heaven, hands held out in a Christlike attitude to 'hail' the settlement. The picture reminds the viewer of the religion which informs the conflict and evokes the symbolism placed on the Easter timing of the talks. The photograph acknowledges its own setting. The modernist critique of representation formed within fine art practice is assimilated by photojournalism. Photography may no longer be seen as a window on the world but nonetheless dominant codes of picturing prevail. The dialogue of mainstream and critical photographic perspectives on Northern Ireland will continue.