Artist Photographs Legacy of Economic Collapse

Watch Anthony Haughey talk about Settlement, a post-Celtic Tiger look at the Irish landscape at Belfast Exposed

Photographer Anthony Haughey takes pictures of ghosts.

These aren't the disembodied, spiritual remnants of the dearly departed though. Unfinished and frequently un-lived in 'ghost estates', abandoned by developers when the collapse of the Irish economy meant the money dried up, can be found throughout Ireland.

Settlement at the Belfast Exposed Gallery is a series of glossy, slickly finished images. Most of the photographs were taken at night, with Haughey having to sneak onto what are still officially building sites.

'Often when you walk on these sites it is as if the builders just went off for lunch and never came back,' Haughey says. 'It is literally frozen in time at that moment the banks foreclosed on the loans. Everything just stopped.'

Haughey used film and an hour-long exposure time to take the pictures, making the most of ambient light from street-lights and the moon. It gives the paintings an odd, flat quality, almost painterly. The precise edges are eerily reminiscent of Victorian memento mori photographs, where the perfectly still corpse was the only thing in focus.

Although Haughey doesn't put a name to the 'ghost estates' in his photographs – 'It is very difficult for people who do live in these half-finished housing estates. The value of these houses have really dropped and I don't want to draw too much attention to that problem.' – but says that most towns in Ireland have one. A lot of them, he argues, should never have been allowed in the first place.

'There's no infrastructure: no public transport, no schools, no shops. There's nothing there in the first place to attract people. So you have to question why they were given planning permission.'

Most of Haughey's ghost-hunts start with several days at home, using Google Earth and Google Street View to find the locations he's looking for. One of the things that intrigues him about this project is how the landscape itself is affected and altered. Neither built-up nor natural, the abandoned 'ghost-estates' are an odd juxtaposition of the two, with scraped bare soil and unnatural hills of loose dirt.

Nature has already started to reclaim the neglected land, with scrubby grass and bushes sprouting. Man has been lending a helping hand too, with 'guerilla gardeners' descending on the estates to replant them.

'In Cavan, for example, a group of people descended with about 400 trees,' Haughey says. 'They walked into one particular area and started to plant. The idea of bringing these wasted areas back to nature is something that people are interested in.'

The idea of reclamation is something that also intrigues Haughey. The second part of the Settlement exhibition consists of a roughly finished maquette of the Anglo-Irish Bank HQ, 'a half-finished building site in the centre of Dublin'.

Since the Anglo-Irish Bank played a not-insignificant role in the economic collapse in Ireland, the fate of the building is highly-contested. Some people argue that it should be repurposed to serve a use to the community, others that it should be left untouched as a monument to economic excess. A selection of these proposals will be displayed in the gallery as part of the exhibition.

'This is the legacy that we are having to deal with.'

Settlement is at Belfast Exposed until August 10. There will be a discussion between Anthony Haughey and Dr Cian O'Callaghan on June 29 at 2pm and a panel discussion on August 9 at 2pm with representatives from North and South of Ireland.