In 1982, a European Union report named Divis Flats as the worst of its kind in Europe. Judah Passow, already a distinguished photo-journalist, picked up on the story in the Observer newsroom and left for Belfast.
Not for him the usual visiting photographer routine of the time – fly in, stay one night at the Europa Hotel, and fly home again. Instead, Passow stayed in Divis for a fortnight and the depth of his experience shows.
Passow came with ‘no particular political or sectarian agenda’, at least in respect of our own parochial conflict. He had a more general perspective, that ‘We live in a terribly flawed and brutal world of our own making', as he wrote at the time. He soon came to see Divis as a ‘metaphor’ for this.
The Divis Flats, built from 1966-1972, were envisaged as a modern, high rise re-housing solution for those people who inhabited the densely populated slum streets of west Belfast at the tine. Their construction was supported by Nationalist politicians and the Catholic Church.
One photograph encapsulates the disaster that followed better than all the others. The surreal background is a mural of the old slum streets. Only a decade after the completion of the Flats, the community is sentimentalising the old squalid housing. In the foreground there's the present, and possibly the future, a young boy wielding a brick with a determined air of despair.
Without question poor design and materials and shoddy construction lay at the heart of problems with Divis Flats. Problems that were then compounded by chronic poverty and the Troubles.
Passow doesn’t focus on ‘the war’ itself. Slogans on the walls sometimes offer a backdrop, but in people’s homes religious iconography predominates rather than political paraphernalia. It is as though, when all is lost, old verities hold good. In one picture the damp has peeled away the wallpaper leaving a stain which takes on the air of yet another religious image.
The British army is omnipresent – after all they occupied the top storeys of one of the tower blocks. This is not reflected in standard riot scenes, rather in the disdain of people, including a young Father Pat Buckley, stopped for identity checks.
Gradations of pallor come through in black and white, and there are a lot of ashen complexions here. Faces are often like those of prisoners. Perhaps faced by constant external violence, and trapped in any case by non-functioning lifts, many of Passow’s subjects rarely left home. The men do, but there is little merriment in a snooker club where the players seem more like lifers.
Drink offers yet another consolation to the dispossessed. True there are those who quaff contentedly but elsewhere there is no pleasure in it. There is a notable picture of two women, one of them is already unconscious on a sofa, while the other surveys a battlefield of empties and cigarette butts
Passow is at pains to emphasise redemptive qualities, ‘how some residents were fighting back, determined not to allow their spirit to be brutalised…’ In some pictures young, often gap-toothed, children play happily. In one flat the wall is adorned by a Carmen-like woman rather than the Madonna, beneath it a young girl aspires to adult beauty.
Robin Livingstone, editor of the Andersonstown News and a childhood Divis resident, is less sure of any redemptive possibility. In his powerful introduction to the exhibition catalogue he writes:
'Divis Flats was not a story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, no matter what anyone else tells you. Divis Flats won. Divis Flats beat us – it beat everybody who ever walked… up those pissy steps…'
For Livingstone ‘these pictures punched me in the stomach’ because they are primarily pictures of people ‘losing, and losing badly’. Without having had to endure Divis, I would agree that the power of this exhibition lies in its unflinching portrayal of the absolute nadir of the Belfast urban experience.
As such it is now an important historic archive because time rushes on. It is extraordinary to think that Passow arrived to record catastrophe only 10 years after the Flats were completed. It is also fortunate that we can now say of them that ‘the past is a foreign place’. Most of the complex has been demolished to make way for low rise development and the remaining tower blocks have been expensively refurbished.
In bringing Passow back, the Red Barn confirms its role as the leading centre in Belfast for documentary photography. It is that reputation that brings to us the work of a photographer who has otherwise won four World Press Photo Awards for his coverage of the Middle East conflict, and was recently author of the acclaimed Shattered Dreams (2008) covering 25 years of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Divis Flats 1982 runs at the Red Barn Gallery, Belfast, until June 30.