With the Northern Ireland Tourist Board categorising Northern Ireland in 2012 as ‘Our Place, Our Time’, it’s fitting that local photographer Jonny Roberts’ first exhibition, Character, showcases portraits of the people who live in our wee country: from drag queens to boxers, toddlers to centenarians, mourners to celebrants.
On show throughout the month of April in the John Hewitt Bar in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, Character is a series of portraits taken over the past two years. Roberts, a 36-year-old from the Cregagh area of east Belfast, has in the past said: 'I love the power of a timeless black and white portrait. I’m fascinated by how they capture someone’s character.'
Roberts’ portraits certainly do that. In one featured in this exhibition, the face of Tilly Rooney, 100 years old, takes up 2/3 of the frame. The background is in shadow. Light glints on her spectacles as she stares defiantly, as if daring the night to do its worst.
Another photo shows Harry Hammond, one-year-old great grandson of Tilly, his head tilted down as he plays with rosary beads, which are draped over his shoulders. Next to that, a portrait of Jackie Rainey – a singer from Larne – captures her lying on a bed, a mysterious half-smile on her face, fingers curled around the headphones on her ears as if she is pulling the music closer to her.
Roberts’ portraits feature a diverse range of people. There’s Andrew, barber and owner of Shear Bliss, who has been plying his trade on the Woodstock Road for over 20 years. Another image is of Roberts’ brother, Dr David Roberts, teacher and head of biology at St Malachy’s College, Antrim Road, photographed as he stands in the school quad.
Singer-songwriter Robyn G Shiels is captured sitting by his back door in a east Belfast alleyway, and Sue Ellen, a sometime drag queen in twinset and pearls, smokes a cigarette and gazes out a window in Dubarry’s Bar.
Roberts was born and raised in east Belfast. After studying English Literature at Queen's University he spent the next few years working in various fields before finding his current job as a Special Educational Needs Assistant.
He first became interested in photography when he was 18 whilst on a trip to Uganda. Thereafter, as the blurb goes, he borrowed his brother-in-law’s camera, and the shots he captured ignited a passion within him for portraiture. He took a course in black and white photography and began to slowly build a portfolio.
He began the series which became Character back in 2010, asking for volunteers and approaching some people who he thought would be interesting to photograph. Roberts admits that he prefers to work with individuals, feeling uncomfortable working with groups.
What is evident when viewing the exhibition is that Roberts has the enviable skill of drawing truth from his subjects. The portraits don’t feel posed.
Rather it seems that the photographer has captured a spontaneous moment in the daily lives of the people that so interest him as an artist, whether it’s little Harry fascinated by the beads in his hand, or boxer Paul Daly gathering inner strength during a break from sparring in a local gym.
While the media's attention remains firmly fixed on Northern Ireland's past, Characters is a refreshing remainder that Northern Ireland also has a very interesting present.
Portraits is on show at the John Hewitt Bar, Belfast, throughout the month of April.