The Northern Ireland Family

New exhibition by photographer John Harrison captures the celebs in aid of Help The Aged. Click Play Video for an online exhibition and Play Audio for a podcast with the stars

Liam Neeson welcomes you to the Ormeau Baths Gallery. All sixteen and a half feet of him. In black and white, looking suave and sophisticated.

It’s a huge portrait shot by John Harrison, the eye and index finger behind The Northern Ireland Family, an exhibition currently adorning the walls of Belfast’s premier gallery space. The Neeson portrait does precisely what it’s meant to do – catches the eye and draws the viewer inside.

In Gallery 2, a life-sized portrait of poet Michael Longley is equally eye-catching. In smaller frames Zoe Salmon in the Grand Opera HouseBaroness May Blood MBE stands proud with two young pupils of Rowallane Integrated School, Belfast, whilst footballer David Healy tugs the scarf of Northern Ireland football manager Nigel Worthington.

Back in Gallery 1, Steven Nolan's mother does what dozens would travel miles to do – slap the big man with the even bigger mouth square on the chops.

The Northern Ireland Family was commissioned by Help The Aged to mark 21 years of work with the elderly in Northern Ireland, and is curated by Peter Richards. A book, entitled The Northern Ireland Family Album, with two new poems by Longley, accompanies the exhibition.

With an inter-generational theme, the exhibition focuses on well-known Northern Irish personalities, with each individual, black and white portrait shot coupled with another of the subject relaxing with older or younger family members or associates in a number of informal environments.

Neeson is also shown planting a smacker on his mother's cheek. The Hollywood A-lister is one of the more glamorous personalities captured by Harrison, an experienced and respected photographer, who made his name while working for news agencies during the Troubles.

Neeson, perhaps surprisingly, isn't the most prestigious or sole newsworthy subject included in the exhibition.

A major coup for Harrison, the notoriously camera-shy artist Basil Blackshaw allowed the photographer access to his studio for an inter-generational shot with his artist daughter Anya Waterworth.

The resulting picture is an invaluable peek into the working world of one of Ireland’s most successful artists. With his dog at his heels and a fire in the grating, Blackshaw appears relaxed and confident, a testament to Harrison’s ability to connect with, and capture, the qualities of his subjects, whoever they may be.

Liam Neeson with his mother, KittyOther inclusions of note are former First Minister Ian Paisley, sitting behind his desk in his study with an unfinished sermon open before him and his two grandsons on either knee; Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, with his mother and grandchildren on the walls of Derry; and Gaelic football legend Peter Cavanan with his sons (dressed in full Tyrone kit) striking the traditional player pose with hands on knees.

'Rosemary Kelly, chairman of Help The Aged and also of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commissioned the exhibition to show the importance of elderly people within the community,' Harrison says. 'It's been an exciting seven-month challenge for me.'

Harrison is quick to stress that none of his chosen subjects were 'difficult' in the celebrity sense of the word, but admits that the logistical nature of organising group shots was the central challenge that he faced.

'None of them were particularly difficult, the biggest part was getting them organised. It’s alright saying you’re going to go along and get a picture of Liam Neeson or Martin McGuinness, that’s quite simple.

'It’s another thing getting the combination to work, when you need to get other individuals or members of the family involved.

'For example, with composer Barry Douglas I had to get a young musician in for the photograph. That was the hardest part. So once they had all agreed to do it, it was easy. It was then just a matter of getting the combinations right, which took lots and lots of phone calls.'

Help The Aged have also published a book to compliment the exhibition entitled The Northern Irish Ian Paisley in his study with his two grandsonsFamily Album. With an introduction by BBC journalist Seamus Kelters and picture notes from the photographer himself, the book acts as an interesting and intimate window into the family lives of Northern Ireland's great and good. But it is the inclusion of the two new poems by Longley that excites Harrison most of all.

'Michael Longley has given us two new poems for the book, which is very special. He’s so much behind this project, and so keen about it, that he volunteered to give them to us.

'He phoned me and asked if I would like them I said, "wow, absolutely fantastic." I'm sure that will make a big difference.' 

Lee Henry

The Northern Irish Family runs in the Ormeau Baths Gallery from May 14 - 31. The Northern Ireland Family Album is available from the Ormeau Baths Gallery or from Help The Aged, and is priced at £20.