One Day In The Life Of...

The Royal Ulster Academy enlist primary school pupils to photograph themselves and their environment

I was expecting One Day In The Life Of... to be a breezy, playful exhibition. I left pondering existentialist European cinema and the future of Belfast's urban youth.

A series of photographs taken by pupils from St Joseph's Primary School (Slate Street), Taughmonagh Primary School, Euston Street Primary School and St Mary's School (Divis Street) in Belfast, I envisaged One Day In The Life Of... to feature lots of smiling faces and mickey-taking, little fat kids doing the Truffle Shuffle and parents cheekily caught off guard.

While there are moments of mirth in the exhibition – developed by the Royal Ulster Academy and their sponsor KMPG with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Arts and Business NI Investment Programme – they are few and far between. Apathy, frustration, disappointment, boredom, are the adjectives that spring to mind.

The photographs were all taken on disposable cameras by young people – in the living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, gardens, classrooms and streets in which they have spent their formative years – after workshops with RUA artists Mary McCaffrey, Colin McGookin and Betty Brown.

They are candid shots, windows into worlds. Very few of the images seem staged: there are no happy families gathered by the fireside, for example. And it is remarkable how listless some of these children appear to be in their own environments, and how introspective and claustrophobic their photographs are.

It is the ninth floor of River House on Belfast's High Street, where the RUA head quarters are located as well as their on/off gallery space in what was once a huge open-plan office. This high up, you can enjoy (for want of a more cynical word) an almost 360 degree view of the city, from the docks to Divis Mountain. Look closely enough and you can see the streets and houses in which many of these photographs were taken.

On temporary walls erected in the centre of the room, and on the far wall, the framed photographs are hung. Each school has been given their own quarter of hanging space, and a list of young photographers acts as an introduction to each section.

The urban landscape in which almost all of the photographs are set is immediately off-putting: concrete was never designed to be beautiful. Would my childhood snaps have been this soulless? I'm pretty sure not, but then I was raised in a small town, on the edge of nature, not in what often resembles a never-ending industrial estate. Is Belfast really so ugly?

I search for images to counteract the gloom. Pets feature quite heavily (and are inevitably cute), as do teddy bears, caravans, school buses, trampolines. Some girls adopt celebrity poses, but they do not seem entirely confident in doing so, naturally – they are simply mimicking what their elders do when getting their photographs taken.

What look to be National Trust country estates and caravan parks, beaches and Belfast Zoo provide brief removal from the grim cityscape. But back to Belfast they all must go, overcast as always, where even the landmarks – the Harland and Wolff cranes, the street signs – are leaden with history. 

There is little respite from the cold dreariness. The sense of loneliness and dejection in one little girl's eyes – who may or may not look so sad because she hates getting her picture taken – stays with me. Various images of boys with their hoods up and tightened around their eyes like so many London rioters is also an unfortunate highlight, as is the shot of two young girls plastered in make up.

The girls look vacant, desperate to shed the weight of expectation that comes from peer pressure and the media's obsession with sex, much too old for their own good. There is nothing innocent about this picture: it is as subtle as a pair of hair straighteners to the jaw.

One image of a girl reading a Rainbow Magic book suddenly fills me with hope. It is not a particularly well composed photograph, and it too feels oddly claustrophobic. (The girl is not in repose on a comfortable couch or curled up in bed, but hunched at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her book.) Rather it is the thought that she may one day read her way out of this sorry place that lifts the spirits.

Suddenly I'm reminded of Werner Herzog's 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I imagine these children – so many of whom look lost and alone in their own surroundings, even among family and friends – groping for freedom, for a better life somewhere distant, but forced to join the queue to push and pull the enormous wooden ship that is their destiny up and over the mountain... all the way back to Belfast, all for nothing.

As the elevator doors open and I walk outside, it seems as if I left One Day In The Life Of... in a hurry. In fact, I spent the best part of an hour wandering around the empty gallery space. If childhood photographs have a nostalgic quality, I hope that in later years these children might look back on these photographs and wonder where it all went right.

One Day In The Life Of... is an incredibly poignant and immersive show, which encourages self-examination as much as it does critical consideration of the art itself. There is unexpected pathos in almost every photograph – in the moments of intimacy and anguished expressions – and whilst it is not what I expected, I rather doubt it's what the RUA expected either.