Contemporary Photography in Northern Ireland

The last 100 years of photography in Northern Ireland

In 1911 there were more than 200 professional photographers working in the region. However by 1969, fewer than 90 photographers or photographic studios were in business, 40 of those in Belfast, five in Derry and four each in Bangor, Enniskillen and Portadown.

The economic decline that injured the livelihood of the well known Irish photographer Robert Welch (1859 - 1936) had wider implications. Cultural and technological changes, such as the wide availability of relatively cheap and reliable cameras and processing facilities, undermined the role of the local studio based professional.

The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 brought intense media attention and a demand for images of the violence, to the exclusion of other forms of documentary photography. Local photographers like Bill Kirk, with his study of The Klondyke Bar (1975), or with Images of Belfast (1983), worked to present images that told more complex, deeper truths about Belfast and the wider northern situation.

Like Englishman Paul Graham, whose Troubled Land: The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland appeared in 1987, the younger Northern Irish photographers who showcased their work in Parallel Realities (1994), sought to cite their work in the contested ground between sensationalised reportage and a tourism marketing aesthetic.

Other photographers working within the community arts movement drew attention to the informal archives of amateur and domestic photographs, which told stories of local people and their communities. As activists, arts educators and artists in their own right, photographers like Frankie Quinn and Sean McKernan of Belfast Exposed, necessarily deal with northern politics in their work, but do so from the grassroots.

Unsensationalised and visually sophisticated, Quinn’s photographs of Belfast’s sectarian peacelines, Interface Images (1994), or the photographs, amateur and professional, in Belfast Exposed’s Falls in Focus (1987), exist as both historical documents and persuasive images.

Paul Seawright’s work also explores communal tensions from outside the agenda of photojournalism. His work (as collected in Inside Information, studies of sectarian murder sites, the Orange Order, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary) dislocates received opinion about the Northern Ireland situation, and yet reaffirms the reality of the place, its inhabitants, and their predicament.

Seawright, a founder of Photo Works North and first editor of its magazine Source, is one of many local photographers building an international reputation while working to develop institutions which promote photography at home.

Further Reading:

The Klondyke Bar (1975) by Bill Kirk; Images of Belfast (1983) by Bill Kirk and Robert Johnstone; Views from Ulster: Contemporary Photography (1984) selected by Colin Osman; Troubled Land: The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland (1987) by Paul Graham; Falls in Focus (1987) by Belfast Exposed; Belfast Exposed 1983-1988, exhibition pamphlet (1988) by Belfast Exposed; Parallel Realities: Six PhotographersInterface Images: Photographs of the Belfast ‘Peacelines’ (1994) edited by Norman Lawrence; (1994) by  Frankie Quinn,; Inside Information (1994) by Paul Seawright.