Book Review by Catherine Duncan
Published by: The Photographers' Gallery, London
Paul Seawright takes photographs of Northern Ireland. He says "It is only my interpretation" It is the "only" that gives it away. Here is an accomplished artist, from Belfast, taking photographs of his own country. But who, in common with many others who have tried to make sense of the quagmire of their culture, is reduced to the pathetic qualification "only" to absolve themselves in case of questions, agreement or offence. Is he not entitled to have an opinion, to make an interpretation? I would urge him to have confidence. Newspaper headlines, editorials, politicians, spokespersons, graffiti, emotive photography and TV footage all shout opinions, thunder interpretations with far less consideration.
Being a native of Belfast, I realised that my reaction was more particular than some English friends who saw the exhibition with me. My initial feeling was that these photographs portrayed 'Home', and simultaneously engendered regret and homesickness within me. In the particular, the photographs show fragments of Northern Ireland, through the vehicle of a study of the R.U.C., with whom Seawright spent many months.
The images often close in on an overlooked corner or detail which in turn give way to a larger import. One such image shows the dusty corner of a room in a barracks. Central to the scene is a battered, old style two bar electric fire. It is burnt and rusted its metal guard wires are mangled. It stands on a dusty floor in front of the corner of some shelving, between which are some plug sockets, wiring and switches in disrepair. This is the setting for one of the most sophisticated police forces in the world. The uniform of this police force is also displayed - on one shelf a police overcoat has been stuffed into a corner, while on its opposite corner, a union flag is carefully folded. These uniforms are each worn by this police force, in reality or in the symbolic, in life or in death. Why has Seawright chosen this image? This corner, overlooked by even the cleaners, must be interpreted in the realm of the symbolic because of the significance appointed to it by the photographer. Look at the chipped formica, the broken and outmoded switches. It is a scene shabby, tired, worn out through use. These objects have come to the end of their natural lifespan. Like the dreary conflict of Northern Ireland, they need swept away.
The neutral colours of this photograph are recurrent in Seawright's photographs. The rain damp light of Northern Ireland lends itself to a flattening effect, and the concrete, wire mesh, metal and dilapidation enforce a sombre stillness. This is broken here and there by the warning red of a bomb alert button or an emergency switch. While on the one hand, there is a malevolent feeling given off by a proliferation of wire and barriers and weaponry, there is also a familiarity for the Northern Irish viewer that denies the shock felt by someone unused to armed Police or the threat of violence. The book's cover photograph of two R.U.C. officers side by side viewed as a close up of their torsos from the back, may look like a still from Bladerunner or Judge Dredd to the 'outside' viewer. Flak jackets, black leather, gun and radio. Technology and weaponry in service of an ideology. In turn, these bodies are cut and used by the photographer. Yet again here we see scuffed surfaces that betray long use and the acceptance of the everyday. Dually there is horror and detached observation, an oscillation between distaste and tired familiarity. Seawright's photographs take us behind the closed doors of the R.U.C. This intimacy and his interest give us an insight and a view we might usually not have or want to have. There seems to be a quiet sadness emanating from the dull reality of the scenes, an anxiety that these are the proofs of Protestant culture in Ireland. 'War' or 'Peace', is shown as a base function, and though the photography is an act of involvement in this activity, there is no evidence of its celebration. War is not wished for except in myth. Seawright has explored everyday life from the intimate observer's standpoint, from where the most effective sight and transmission can be. His addition to the sum of understanding must lead closer to progression. The details which Seawright picks as representative of a larger whole indicate his familiarity with his subject, his desire to make sense of events. There is no complacent final gesture in the work, just some gentle prodding.
Inside Information was published by The Photographers' Gallery, London, and The Gallery of Photography, Dublin, and is distributed by Cornerhouse Publications, Manchester.