Youth In the Media

Police and thieves in the streets, but the kids aren't so bad, discovers Joe Nawaz

Walking home from the Cathedral Quarter late the other night, I saw a spectacle to bemuse, confuse and generally counter-intuit. A gang of on-duty, fully kitted-out cops were nonchalantly kicking their heels around the ‘Spirit of Belfast’ sculpture in Cornmarket. Jostling in dangerous tomfoolery like asbo-magnets around their jeep, smoking crafty woodbines (or the contemporary equivalent) and generally messing about, it was at once affecting and disturbing to witness.

The streets were all but empty. Everyone had buggered off for the Twelfth fortnight and the cops in question clearly felt they could let their regulation-length hair down a bit because there was absolutely nothing else to do.

Very sweet and all, but who, I thought, would come along to tell the guardians of the law they were loitering in a public place and should move on? Not me at any rate. I walked on and hoped, as I do with any gathering of hooded or hat-wearing sorts, that they wouldn’t focus their collective attention on me. But I did suddenly realise why they’re always hurrying and harrying hordes of callow youth away from these spaces at every opportunity: it’s clearly a ‘Sharks v Jets’ territorial issue and they want their mooching patch back.

That slight vignette is brought to something approaching ironic relief thanks to a unique photographic exhibition currently on display at the Waterfront Hall. Part of the Trans Festival, Youth In the Media is a powerful collection of images of young people by young people challenging age-old media stereotypes and societal prejudices of 'today’s youth' with their hoodies, their flick-knives and (if current dismal cinematic trends are to be gauged) supernatural abilities and appetites for social mayhem.

Created by the newly revivified Youth@CLC, the youth advisory group of the Children’s Law Centre, Youth In the Media uses a narrative form of sorts to initially depict the usual threatening stereotypical images of teenagers, segueing into a series of striking images reflecting their concerns about media misrepresentation and the issues they feel are pertinent to them.

The exhibition then culminates - shock, horror - with pictures of kids being kids. That is, being nice to each other, having fun and generally doing the productive stuff you might even approve of if carried out by somebody old enough to vote.

Not that surprisingly, it turns out that teenagers have a very keen sense of self and their skewed place in this slightly tawdry society of ours. And accordingly, the exhibition does throw up some striking portraits which variously examine poverty, consumerism and mental health, the latter of which is extremely high on most young people’s agenda of concerns. And yes, teenagers genuinely don’t get why they’re always hassled by police, unaware as they are of plod’s territorial stakes in areas like Cornmarket and the front of the City Hall.

Images include an old woman cowering behind her blinds for fear of what youth-related horror might be outside, a sinister yet elegant ivory-masked ‘hoodie’ figure and some extremely claustrophobic scenes depicting dereliction and the hopeless sense of confinement and restriction that poverty confers.

Áine Hargey from Youth@CLC helped to direct the project, but the ideas, issues and indeed photographs were all generated by the young people. Taking cameras into Belfast’s city centre and some of the surrounding urban housing areas, this singular teens-eye view of the city demonstrates an accomplishment not only of composition, but also presentation. And the message throughout is clear and perfectly reasonable: don’t believe the hype. Well, at least not the negative kind.

Youth@CLC isn’t the usual Duke of Edinburgh-style stop-gap for kids looking for a CV filler for uni. It is (that rarest of entities) a socially mixed youth panel and it has a genuine advisory role. It was brought about in recognition of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states: ‘You have the right to an opinion, for it to be listened to and to be taken seriously.'

Youth In the Media certainly demands that serious attention and in doing so also demands that young people are judged on their own merits and not collectively. Fitting then that the exhibition ends on a stridently positive note, with images of skateboarding, political activism and even sharing a laugh or two with police officers. It demonstrates if nothing else that really, glue-bags and gun-crime aren’t a default lifestyle choice for anybody.

This exhibition also indirectly shows (such as in the moving images of very young people standing cheerfully in decaying playgrounds) that the economic stagnation, neglect and attendant poverty in many local communities help to engender conditions where demonic stereotypes can be made flesh.

It’s bloody hard being a teenager, you know – harder still when you inherit little more than distrust and recession from the preceding generation. All the more reason why we should applaud those young people who struggle to free themselves of such crippling shackles.

Youth In the Media is an exhibition truly worth celebrating. It raises the question: what with all the nonsense that young people have to endure on a daily basis, is it so terrible that they congregate of a Saturday in town? They’re no trouble really. And anyway, being a pretty health-savvy bunch, they’re much less likely to be smoking fags or playing irresponsibly near the sharp-sculpted edges of the 'Spirit of Belfast' than other vilified groups I can think of.

Youth In the Media - part of the trans Festival - runs in the Waterfront Hall until July 29.