Belfast Retrospective

The 'hardiness and wit' of Belfast's inhabitants comes across in this collection of harrowing and hilarious photographs at Belfast Exposed

Residing in the Exchange Gallery at Belfast Exposed, Belfast Retrospective is an exhibition comprised of highlights from the BE archives, which have been compiled over the last 30 years. With the archive containing some half a million images (and counting), the selection process was surely gruelling for volunteer curator, Sarah Fulton.

Fortunately the 12 images that made the final cut are extraordinary and, although largely Troubles related, are more about providing an insight into working class life during turbulent times. Not only does the exhibition express a strong and distinctive connection to Belfast as a city of many tribes, it also shows how life in Belfast has changed (and not changed) throughout the years.

Presented without frames in high contrast black and white, the images have a stark and honest feel to them – powerful and evocative, these are photographs that are also beautifully composed.

Although there are some extremely dramatic pieces displayed – such as a busy shot of the press circus surrounding Gerry Adams after signing the Good Friday Agreement, and a portrait of an army helicopter hovering over Divis Tower – the most engaging photographs are those that show everyday life continuing in the face of adversity.


One particular piece, 'Ceasefire Special', perfectly encapsulates a particularly Northern Irish sense of humour. A close up of a chip shop menu taken by Sean McKernan offers local punters a car bomb-themed special which includes sausages ‘guaranteed to go off with a bang’.

Elsewhere we see a group of children merrily playing aboard an abandoned bus behind a brick-smashed windscreen. While visually disturbing, it is also strangley uplifting to see images of innocent youngsters building a normal world for themselves amidst the madness.

But there is heartache, and for every joyous image like the peculiarly Northern Irish sight of two girls playing on a makeshift lamppost swing, there is a distressing piece such as the arresting sight of an elderly couple crossing the road amidst a riot, or a worried child standing next to an RUC riot squad.

Perhaps the most visually gripping photograph is ‘Milk Riot’ (below), which catures an inter-estate brawl in what looks to be north Belfast fought with litres of the white stuff. Despite the foreboding clouds, litter-strewn streets and political propaganda visible, the photograph verges on the comical, with cartons of milk hanging in mid-air.

While in part an exercise in documentation, the greatest success of Belfast Retrospective is arguably in its ability to demonstrating the hardiness and wit of the city’s inhabitants. And it is a pleasure to see yet another top class exhibition in the Exchange Space, an unfunded project space with a remit for housing short-term exhibitions, talks and workshops to complement the main gallery at Belfast Exposed.

Prints of the photographs on display are available for purchase at £20 each, as are packages of 6x4 postcards with even more images from the BE archives.

Belfast Exposed closes for Christmas at 2pm on Friday, December 21.