Belfast Exposed Archive Inspires Book

Despite the years of wear and tear, there is still much to see

Belfast Exposed’s latest collaboration with London-based artistic duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin draws on the gallery's extensive archive for a book entitled People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground.

Photographs of political funerals, episodes of violence, kissing and drinking tea are just some of the striking but simple images that have been selected from the gallery’s archive for a book that documents life in Belfast over the last 30 years.

Founded in 1983, the archive occupies a large cupboard on the first floor of the gallery on Donegall Street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, and contains over 14,000 black-and-white contact sheets of photographs taken by both professional photo-journalists and ‘civilian’ photographers during the Troubles. 'We knew from early on it would lend itself well to a publication,' remarks Belfast Exposed’s Rachel Brown.

From its very inception Belfast Exposed has been people friendly, with researchers, art enthusiasts and the general public permitted to browse through the archive. This has meant, however, that after years of wear and tear, some of the images in the archive are now marked and damaged.

On some of the archived photographs, coloured dots highlight formal editing processes designed to select and emphasise. Elsewhere, ink and scissors have been used to deface and rub out people and objects. 'It has become less of an archive and more of a collection, as it has been added to over the years,' explains Brown. 'It’s chaotic.'

While a team of interns worked on 'getting an actual system in place' to archive the negatives and photographs, Brown and her partner Bri commissioned Broomberg and Chanarin to search through the loot and find out what was hidden beneath the marks and stickers.

The idea for the project came to the curatorial couple before they took up their post at Belfast Exposed. 'We liked Broomberg and Chanarin's work, and from knowing where their previous work was going we knew that they would be good. We spoke to them about it before we were in post, then we got the job and they were the first people we called.'

The artists were interested in working on 'specific documents of a very specific time', adds Brown, and it helped that they were 'quite removed from it'. Speaking about the work, Bloomberg says that he and Chanarin felt like 'outsiders parachuted into Belfast'.

As a result, they made a conscious decision to 'find another way around the archive' and use a mechanical approach to show the hidden images behind the archive’s many markings. 'The meaning of the dots wasn’t that interesting, they were part of the archive process,' said Bloomberg. 'What we decided was that those markings had resonance.'

Finding a starting point was the most difficult part, explains Brown, but after a number of visits from the artists it became easier. 'Their first way in was to just find images of people. It could have been a really political thing. For example, we have an image of Sean Downes being killed by a close range plastic bullet. Then there are people just messing about in the garden.'

After the research was complete and the focus of the book was decided upon it was merely a case of 'marathon printing'. The first part of the book is compiled of altered prints, whilst the second part features a small number of larger prints, showing the marks in full.

Some of the images are beautiful, some brutal, but People in Trouble... shows the variety of content that exists in the Belfast Exposed archive and offers a glimpse of everyday life during the Troubles.

Despite all the hard work and months spent trawling through the archives, Brown has hailed the project a success. While the book has just been launched, she says that it has already made people 'more interested and curious' and has put the archive on an 'international stage. It was a people's conflict and this is a people's archive.'

People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground is available from the Belfast Exposed gallery now.

* The artists would like to thank the original photographers Mervyn Smith, Sean McKernan, Gerry Casey, Seamus Loughran and all other contributing photographers to Belfast Exposed’s archive. Copyright of the original images remains with these photographers and with Belfast Exposed.