‘Don’t get used as a propagandist’: visual storytelling of Ulster’s loyalist community
by Allan LEONARD
19 October 2023
As part of its two exhibitions, “Not Surrendering” by Mariusz Smiejek and “No Surrender: The Protestants” by Ed Kashi, and to celebrate the launch of Smiejek’s book, Belfast Exposed hosted an artist talk with both photographers, facilitated by writer and journalist Malachi O’Doherty.
After welcoming attendees, the event began with a screening of video comprising a mixture of loyalist community images from both, with a soundtrack rap song, Born in Belfast, by Jun Tzu. Several remarked that it was difficult to discern which images were from Kashi’s work of the late 1980s and Smijek’s of recent years — besides those with tell-tale signs like people holding mobile phones.
O’Doherty asked Smiejek whether he thought much had changed, from what he could see in the intervening decades from Kashi’s work. Smiejek replied that it was hard to say — he wasn’t here in the 1980s — but he sensed a feeling of abandonment amongst the loyalist community.
Smiejek explained that he chose loyalists as his subject matter after researching the perspectives of both nationalists and unionists for about ten years. He wanted to produce a different angle of telling the story of Northern Ireland, particularly to an outside audience, accustomed to only hearing about the IRA. Smiejek felt that Poland, his place of origin, had a lack of perspective.
He emphasised, however, of wanting to present a human perspective, not a stereotype of a group of people. An aim was to show how hard it has been to recover from conflict, while also revealing identities of his participants.
Switching to Kashi, O’Doherty also asked him why he chose loyalists as a subject matter, 30 years ago. Kashi replied, “Because they felt like the last white tribe of Europe,” explaining that his research included examining the music of Van Morrison and the Ulster Protestant links with America. This piqued his interest and he made it a personal project.
Kashi told O’Doherty that he learned that loyalists place a high value on symbols and identity: “It’s tragic because it leads to conflict and violence.” He added, “There’s nothing wrong with being loyal to the Queen,” but Kashi seemed confounded by its manifestations here.
The conversation turned to how one realises a visual narrative. Kashi explained that he befriended teenagers during his time in Belfast, at age 30. He spent a couple of months, day-in/day-out, earning trust. This led to him once being bundled in a car and taken to a place where there was “a show of strength” on display for him. But it was just three men holding weapons: “It was absurd, there was nothing going on here. It was the strangest fashion shoot I ever did. But I realised that if you’re not careful, you’ll get used as a propagandist.”
O’Doherty asked which is harder — telling a story with images or writing a story. As both a writer and photographer, O’Doherty wondered whether photography offers more latitude in the selection and interpretation of the images, whereas writing is less so, with expected conclusions and summaries. Kashi argued that photography (or at least photojournalism) is harder, with less latitude: “Because we’re dependant on physically being in a time and space where something actually happened, if you’re doing non-fiction photography.” He added that loyalists are very demonstrative, which made it easier to visually depict, “but it depends upon what I am shown or what I see.” Kashi said that he added words to provide context.
Relatedly, O’Doherty asked Kashi and Smiejek for their thoughts on the debate on photography as art or as a (lesser) form of (documentary) journalism. Kashi answered with the work of Gilles Peress, a prolific photographer but who insists is not a war photographer.
As Peress explains himself in an interview for book publisher Steidl (2:10–4:38):
“All categories are problematic… It creates a predetermination of the kind of work you’re going to do… a production for a certain market, and the predictability is distasteful… I really think that interesting work is in the no-man’s land between categories — between art and journalism, or art and history, or photography and cinema — where you can’t put a real label [on it].”
Indeed, Peress’s mammoth 1,960-page visual opus of the Troubles, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, is described as a work of “documentary fiction” — 1,295 images assembled across 22 fictional “days” with repeating themes.
Kashi suggested this could be considered “conceptual documentary work”.
Smiejek responded by saying that he didn’t consider himself an artist, “but the message is there”. His objective with Not Surrendering was not to create a body of art, but “a body of my experience, knowledge, and feelings about the community that I photograph”. To achieve respect and trust, Smiejek explained to those he met that he was not from the Sunday World newspaper; he spent five to six years with members of the loyalist community before he felt that he had “proper access” to a level of life that he really wanted to discover.
Smiejek described the outcome as an exchange: “I got access to the community and I gave my photographs to the NGOs to use in their work. It was important for me to give something back.”
He wants the reader to go through his book “very slowly”, so as to get to know Northern Ireland and its story more easily and start asking questions yourself “about who we are”. Smiejek said that he was definitely not in it for shock effect — his refusal to publish potentially profitable images to the newspapers was not a form of self-censorship, but rather a way to ensure the integrity of his project and maintaining relationships with the loyalist community: “This is documentary work, a long-term story. I don’t want to use it to get money from newspapers.”
Smiejek added that he will not sell images to news agencies and galleries, for fear of them publishing them out of context. O’Doherty sympathised with this, as he told of an occasion when his voice in a piece was replaced by another and rebroadcast by the BBC:
“Material in journalism circulates… A picture of yours ends up in a newspaper, then it goes to a photo library and can turn up ten years later in a story that has no essential relevance to it.”
I extended this point during the question-and-answer session, when I asked for thoughts about journalists’ use of user-generated content (with everyone having a digital camera in their pocket, their mobile phones): “Would you trust just calling out to the community and say, ‘Just send me your photographs and I’ll make a story out of it?’” Kashi had a strong reaction, remarking that citizen journalism — with anyone able to produce news stories and reports from their own eyewitness accounts — doesn’t supplant professional journalism, with accountability to ethical standards: “We need to be able to count on that, because if we erode it, democracy [is] screwed.” However, Kashi also said that he will ask for user-generated content for his film documentary work, for the sake of efficiency when he can’t readily access remote locations: “As long as we know that the work is authentic and isn’t manipulated, then it adds to the storytelling.”
O’Doherty answered by saying that he is now relaxed about shadowing a press pack at their job for an opportunity to take his own photographs for his books, whereas in his early years of journalism, he said that he would have been surely told off for encroaching on the working territory of unionised labour.
Smiejek said that for him it is the exercise of visual language that matters, and for this there needs to be proper cooperation with your subjects.
As evidenced in the displayed images of this joint exhibition, just as in the introductory video, however one might label the work of these visual storytellers, both creators share a respect for learning about their subject, staying true to the ethics of not exploiting others or being exploited themselves, and telling as true a story as they witnessed.
The two exhibitions at Belfast Exposed are open from 5–28 October 2023.