With his new book, called Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography, Colin Graham is exploring this work. Taking 1980 as his starting point, Graham traces the developments in photography through turbulent times.
‘Collectively, these images show a sceptical interrogation of what the politics of Northern Ireland have done to the place,’ says Graham. ‘They’re not looking at political events or figures, but at the effects that high politics has on local lives and spaces.’
ART AND DOCUMENTARY
The book progresses from 1980 right up to the late 2000s, and in the earlier images we see the beginnings of a complex blend of art and documentary photography.
Photojournalists raised on Vietnam and Korea were drawn to the Troubles like moths to a flame.
‘There was a lot of focus on the North through photojournalism, and it was a very dramatic story,’ he says. ‘I think that for art photographers there was partly a reaction against that, they were trying to create a «truer» version of Northern Ireland.’
You may recognise the above image, as it’s one of the most famous pieces in the book. Taken by Philip Jones Griffiths for Magnum Photos in 1973, it shows the face of a young Irish soldier through his scratched and beaten riot shield. We asked Graham why he thinks this particular image has endured.
‘I think it’s partly the directness of it,’ he says. ‘It focuses on an individual, so it almost humanises the situation. The soldier himself is quite handsome in some ways, and the image is marked by evidence of violence he suffers. It’s dramatic and straightforward.’
Graham also finds the photograph to be influenced by Don McCullin’s image of a shell-shocked soldier from Vietnam.
‘The shell-shocked soldier is framed in a similar way,’ he says. It captures the anti-war feeling that was around at the end of the ’60s. There was a kind of pity for the young soldier. It was like an essence of the anti-war movement and the way people thought about war and peace at the time.’
BEYOND THE TROUBLES
While the repercussions of the Troubles won’t ever disappear, peace processes have given hope for the future. So, does Graham think art-documentary photography is starting to look beyond the Troubles’1
‘It’s very hard to know the answer,’ he says. ‘That narrative of the Troubles, the social effects and political divisions; people live with that legacy whether they want to or not.’
Despite this, Graham does believe that the most recent generation of photographers in Northern Ireland are beginning to move apart from the Troubles. Northern Irish photography is becoming more broadly international.
‘They are all people living in the modern world,’ Graham says. ‘There’s increasingly more of a focus on social issues, the same issues that anyone in the western world confronts. Photographers were interested in how the Troubles marked ordinary people’s lives, but now ordinary people’s lives can be seen to be marked in other ways as well.’