The Belonging Project

Photographer Laurence Gibson's staged portraits of migrants living in Northern Ireland are full of humanity but frustratingly inaccessible to anyone without a smartphone

The Belonging Project was initiated by Laurence Gibson, a Belfast-born photographer, and is supported by an intercultural arts grant awarded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, as well as a 'good relations' grant provided by Belfast City Council. One has to admire the scrupulous transparency of the funding.

Each photo displayed here in Belfast City Hall's East Entrance is shot against a dark background lit from above by a single light, leaving the subjects to emerge from the gloom like Caravaggio’s sitters. Is this a symbolic gesture? Leaving behind the darkness of their personal stories for the shining new tomorrows of a life in Northern Ireland?

In the portraits, the subjects – migrants all – have some token that illustrates their journey. Eva, from Hungary, clutches a book with a beautiful pen and ink drawing on the cover. The book is illustrated with a bottle and a glass of wine, and a plate of something, which is obscured by Eva’s fingers. There is a knife sticking out of something – are those severed hands? There is a title, of course, but my Magyar is a little rusty.

This is where I discover a problem, something I feel might warrant a disclaimer of some description from the exhibitors: in order to hear more about the stories of the sitters, one needs a smartphone to use on each photograph’s QR code. My own phone, a thing of Bakelite and string, is the dumbest one in Belfast, and just squats in my palm shrugging. As a phone, it barely phones, never mind does anything smart.

So I stare at Eva’s tumbling hennaed locks and chunky silver jewellery, as she clutches her inscrutable manuscript, and stares past me into the middle distance. I look at the next portrait, of an elderly man from Ghana named Stephen dressed in a bobbled burgundy jumper with a lime green plastic comb in his hand. Their tales remain infuriatingly, tantalisingly out of reach.

A security guard comes to my rescue with a phone so sleek, flat and black that the cast of 2001 might have brought it back from the moon. I’m ashamed to say I don't get his name, despite having to frequently ask for technical assistance when I press the wrong button/drop the phone/take a blurred selfie of my knee, but he is my hero.

With his help I am able to determine that Eva from Hungary is a cook (though there is no pun intended), and that her book is a recipe book. Stephen’s outsize plastic comb is one he brought all the way from Africa for his 'lustrous hair' (he does indeed have an enviable thatch for a man of 66). He has been living in Belfast since 1984, working as a nurse for all that time.

Next is Nasim, from Iran, whose husband is a student at the University of Ulster. Nasim's significant object is called a chador: the covering Muslim women wear when praying. It is a beautiful design, blue and white inlaid with pale pink flowers. She describes it as her 'less formal' one, though it looks pretty fancy to me. Photographer Gibson captures Nasim here as an Islamic Madonna, eyes lowered reverently under a key-light. For once, the image leads the text.

There is more to the portrait of Sara the Roma than there is to her story, necessarily perhaps, as she is only five-years-old. There is a look of confidence in her eyes, perhaps conferred on her by the butterfly hairclip she is wearing. She bustles her skirt with her right hand as though readying herself to dance.

Everyone’s story is different: Aruna from Guinea-Bissau arrived in Northern Ireland looking for work as 'his cousin was already working in a factory in Dungannon'. Raquel, a former journalist from Lisbon (not Lisburne) came because she married a local man. Their stories echo my own family history: my parents left here in the 1960s looking for work. I moved back for love.

There is no fabricated theme running through these stories. They are as different as the people who tell them. And this is as it should be. While the poses in Gibson's photographs may be stiffly formal, the sitters themselves are anything but. Instead, they are relaxed and effusive and oddly, for people living in Northern Ireland, they seem pleased to be here.

There is a hamper full of humanity in this exhibition, and everyone should tuck in. But please bring a smartphone or a small child equipped with technical savvy, or you will only get half the story.

The Belonging Project ran in Belfast City Hall until March 31. For those unable to attend, all images and related audio interviews are available on project website.

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