Poetry & Place: Photographic interpretations of Louis MacNeice by Allan LEONARD 25 July 2017
Women of the Ards peninsula worked with community artist, Jane McComb, to use photography not only to document social, maritime, and agricultural legacy of the area, but also to give interpretation to the writings of poet, Louis MacNeice (1907–1963), who is buried locally in Christ Church, Carrowdore.
Of lying (and truth) in politics (SRF Radio 2)
13 March 2017
Martin ALIOTH interviewed Allan LEONARD (Northern Ireland Foundation), journalist Jenny HOLLAND, and Enda YOUNG (Transformative Connections), for SRF Swiss Radio 2 programme, Context (audio extract (German)):
I was part of a five-member panel of stroke survivors and carers who presented short stories of our perspectives, to an audience of delegates at the fifth Northern Ireland conference organised between the Northern Ireland Multidisciplinary Association for Stroke Teams (NIMAST) and the UK Stroke Forum (UKSF), held at La Mon Hotel, Belfast.
I told a story at the Tenx9 event at Belfast’s Black Box venue. Tenx9 is a series of monthly events, where nine individuals tell a true, personal story, for up to ten minutes (hence the title). There are six Tenx9 city sites to date (why not start your own!); the Belfast series is led by Padraig and Paul.
The theme of this year’s Belfast Photo Festival is convergence – the act of artists mixing other forms of art, such as performance and sculpture, with photographic image making. A panel discussion, hosted at Belfast Exposed, explored these boundaries and overlaps, and mooted the way forward.
Prof. Hodgson placed the discussion in the context that only a relatively small segment of those who take photographs might be interested in the present and future status of contemporary photography.
Ms McQuaid presented examples of convergence, demonstrations of practicing photographers, past and present – the return of the printed photo, the physical manipulation of the print, “photo drawings”, and the hybridisation of the 2-dimensional image with a corresponding 3-dimensional object.
Prof. Hodgson replied by saying that he has seen these styles before, and isn’t it interesting that photography has to resort to reapplications of what has been done already? That is to say, why is it so difficult to stop and absorb an individual image?
Part of the answer lies in the classic debate between the application of craftsmanship and self-conscious artistry.
For example, visitors to a gallery of fine art (non-photographic) may stand in awe in front of works of obvious great craftsmanship and artistry. But in a room next door full of contemporary photos, viewers may hone in on the familiar – the object or setting that reminds them of a familiar place or time. The craftsmanship and artistic intent is more easily lost.
So what is the better perspective of photography as a means of communication – is it to make the photographer feel better (“a form of therapy”), or to impart a sentiment to the audience?
Prof. Hodgson developed this line of thinking by asking about photos as “mattering”; what makes a photo matter? How do we decide, “That photo is not as good as this one.”?
And who sets the standards – technical achievement, editorial approval, audience distribution?
After all, we don’t feel the need to have PhDs to appreciate and respond to images.
Mr Hobson countered by defending the role of the curator: “We have a job to do, to have people respond to images in a particular way,” for viewers to reflect and not resort to nostalgic resonance.
And could this explain why convergence is en vogue – to ensure that the viewer must reflect?
The question and answer session provided a profound epilogue. When asked about the value of convergence as a useful artistic application, Mr Hobson replied to the contrary: “Convergence holds photography back. If a photograph is embedded with strong and good ideas, and originality, then it is interesting and deserves attention.” An image’s strength validates it.
Another way of “mattering” is to say appreciation. What is to be appreciated about a photograph? Its craftsmanship? The single image, or series, or movie? The narrative?
The craftsmanship of image making is being attacked from many angles. Beginners now need not learn print making processes; their smartphone or computer software will produce a technically sufficient image. Advanced photographers are not required for fashion shoots or stock photography; automated cameras and 3-D scanning will sort that out.
Quality single images still matter, but they have always been difficult to appreciate. At least before the advent of digital photography and easy uploading (now provided automatically through various phone apps), getting any image distributed involved some mediator (newspaper editor, gallery curator, commissioned work). Now the self-published photo book (and Instagram and Tumblr feeds) circumvents editorial gatekeeping.
This leaves the narrative as the unresolved battlefield. What makes a good narrative? How best to demonstrate it? Who decides?
Convergence may be a re-enactment of photographic history, and should not be dismissed as such.
But convergence is just one way of expressing a self-conscious idea.
Mr Casper asked the panellists if they could identify artists who are using photography as a starting point for a new art form: “Who’s going to create the hip-hop of photography?” Mr Hobson cited a Dutch photographer, Jan Hoek, who meets people on the street and invites them to his apartment to perform particular roles, which he uses to create a narrative.
Perhaps the future for contemporary photography is for more exploration of telling the narrative.
In September 2012, peace talks were announced between the Colombian Government and the guerrilla group FARC. There have been several rounds of negotiation, now taking place in Havana, Cuba.
INCORE at the University of Ulster saw a potential in investigating the lessons, good and bad, from the Northern Ireland peace process, in this 15th anniversary year of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
A three-day roundtable event was held 26-28 April in Derry-Londonderry, which included experts (politicians, scholars and journalists) from Colombia and Northern Ireland.
The event was hosted by INCORE and sponsored by the Rotary Club of Londonderry.
The event was opened by several dignitaries, including the Colombian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mauricio Rodriguez; the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness; and the Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell.
Gerard Finnegan explained Rotary’s involvement, as part of a larger event taking place a few weeks later in Derry-Londonderry, “From peace making to peace building”, which will reflect stories from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Basque country, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Finnegan said that the main goal is to lay the foundation for legacy work.
Conference organiser, Ariel Sanchez, said that in order to transform the current Colombia peace talks into a sustainable agreement, political will is of the essence, which should go beyond the negotiating teams, to all sectors of society.
Ambassador Rodriguez welcomed all contributions that might help them resolve “our almost half century old conflict”.
He listed five issues that the current Colombia negotiations — due to be concluded by the end of 2013 — address:
Rural development and land reform
The end of hostilities
In regards to political participation, he cited how the current mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Aureliano, “who holds the second most important political job in Colombia next to the President”, is a former member of M-19, a guerrilla affiliated party that the Colombian Government was able to reach a peace agreement with three years ago.
Of the “so-called war on drugs”, starting nearly 40 years ago, the Ambassador described it as a “tragic failure”. He mentioned Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos’ role in international discussions on alternative approaches to the issue.
As for victims’ rights, he said that the Victims and Land Restitution Act is being implemented, “which will give millions of hectares back to people who were violently and illegally dispossessed of their land”.
Ambassador Rodriguez assured the conference participants that their proposals resulting from this event will be studied by President Santos and the negotiating team.
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MLA, described Northern Ireland’s peace process as a long journey, saying that “we have not been on that journey alone”. For example, he said that the experience of learning from those involved in South Africa’s negotiations “were absolutely invaluable”.
Mr McGuinness added that he’s “been to a forest in Finland, twice, and to Baghdad”. Pointing, he said, “I blame him, Quintin [Oliver], who’s also made his own unique contributions to peace making in the world.”
The deputy First Minister remarked that as the Iraqi delegates only wanted to deal with those who had experience in South Africa and Northern Ireland negotiations (in contrast, say, to American and British offers of assistance), “it was a great honour to be asked to participate and a privilege to go”.
“It is hugely important that those of us who have been through a successful journey give back to others who are trying to accomplish the same sort of success that we had, whilst recognising that no two conflicts are the same. And that we don’t have the prescription at our hands for peace — that is very much in the hands of the people of Colombia,” said Martin McGuinness.
He said that of vital importance is that there is trust that those in negotiations are committed to seeking a peace agreement. “If you want the worst example of how a peace process can go wrong, look at Sri Lanka. What happened in Sri Lanka was a disgrace, with hundreds of thousands losing their lives, because the Government and the Tamils hadn’t been honest with each other about having peace.”
Back to Colombia, Mr McGuinness found encouragement by the fact that the talks are continuing, with each side assessing the other in regards to their seriousness about peace.
There are many important issues to be dealt with in the Colombia peace process, including victims, dealing with the past (“something we can say we have not been spectacularly successful with here”), and former prisoners (where he remarked positively on the transformation of the Maze/Long Kesh prison site into a Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution Centre).
Arguing for an inclusive process in the Colombia negotiations, Mr McGuinness mentioned his meetings with Colombians for Peace as well as the Colombian Patriotic March group. He appealed to President Santos “not to ignore ordinary people, who have suffered the most”.
Finally, he explained why the word ‘leadership’ is so vital:
“Unless leadership is in place on both sides of the conflict, who are absolutely dedicated to bringing that conflict to an end by peaceful means, then peace processes will not even get off the ground. So, people have to show leadership. They have to do different things … make gestures … stretch out the hand of friendship — even if on occasion it’s at a cost to themselves. Because we have to continue to put our heads above the parapet … to show the world that we’re serious about bringing peace.”
Junior Minister (to First Minister Peter Robinson MLA), Jonathan Bell MLA said that he saw the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as an imperfect solution, with the initial appeal of its ‘constructive ambiguity’ giving way to a realisation of trouble ahead.
For him, the flaw was that the agreement was allowed to be all things to all people, leading onto an unsteady power-sharing arrangement. The issue at the heart of the problem was the impression that one side had gained more concessions than another. After the Northern Ireland Government collapsed in 2002, new talks led to the St Andrews Agreement in 2007 and a return to devolved administration.
Looking back at 15 years since the Belfast Agreement, he cited a number of lessons that could be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process.
One, be clear about what it is that you want to achieve for the community that your represent: “This means keeping your support base on board, every step of the way. Communication is everything, because the outcomes of the process should not produce any nasty surprises.”
Two, be prepared for disagreements, and not just those that take place around the negotiating table; be sure to take the majority of supporters with you: “Negotiations cannot afford to be too many steps ahead of those whose interests they represent.”
Three, do not be tempted to give up: “The search for peace is the greatest quest which any of us can ever be engaged. Quite literally, lives depend on it, as does the future of coming generations.”
Four, never let discussions around the negotiating table be overtaken or be outflanked by what is being said in the media. Mr Bell described the tension between keeping some important matters private versus the right of a free media.
Junior Minsiter Bell concluded, “Peacebuilding does take time. It is achieveable, it is achievable.”
In summing up the speeches, INCORE Director, Brandon Hamber, recalled a colleague once referring to the South Africa conflict as “the struggle” — “It’s not called a struggle for nothing.”
Transferring this to Northern Ireland, Dr Hamber said, “It’s not called a peace process for nothing — it’s a process.”
He described the Colombia situation as a long-term process, with many twists and turns, but where a reward is possible.
To mark its 30th anniversary, Belfast Exposed has organised an extensive exhibition of photographic work, displayed both at its premises on Donegall Street as well as at The MAC. The exhibition — Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography — “focuses on the growth of new, fine art documentary practices, more often produced for the gallery space and the photo book rather than for a press or media context”.
Karen Downey was late from finishing a curator’s tour of the exhibition, as well as from being interviewed for BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra programme (above). She described the background of the anniversary project and introduced the guest speakers.
Colin Graham was previously a Reader in English at Queen’s University Belfast, and he described how his specialism in literature influences his critiques of photography. For example, he made the point that “the shape of something [presented] is as important as its context”. Also, that the act of photography is a self-conscious decision, literally snapshots of a journey made by the photographer.
In reviewing 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland, he listed a broad spectrum that included press photography, archive photographers, landscape photo books, Flickr photostreams and the more recent proliferation of Instagram and general increase in non-professional photography. In compiling the book, he didn’t attempt to survey them all, but to select and explain “why I liked what I liked”.
Donovan Wylie explained how he returned to photography after he “lost faith in the single image”: making films was far more difficult.
Describing the invitation to undertake the Maze project work, he said that he repeatedly said no: “It represented everything I didn’t like about Northern Ireland.” But taking encouragement from others, he ultimately agreed. Yet he struggled to find a satisfactory strategy until, as he put it, he surrendered his resistance to the place, and worked with the logic of its design. Interestingly, here he described feeling less a photographer and more like an operator — a mixture of artist and documentarian.
John Duncan, co-editor of Source magazine, introduced himself as someone who has been dwelling on Belfast for the past 25 years.
He showed a projected image of the first known photograph of Belfast, the clearing of buildings to make way for the construction of Custom House. This was part of his motivation for his Boom Town II project, photographs of billboard signs advertising “developers’ visions of what they think their patch of Belfast should look like”.
Mary McIntyre was educated in fine art and sculpture, and identified herself as “an artist who uses photography”. Indeed, she said that her influences are more cinematic than photographic.
She “photographs atmospheres”, describing her work as a dialogue, where sometimes the subject matter speaks to her. “I take the image and it’s instinctive. I don’t know why I’ve taken it until later, sometimes much later, when it communicates with me.”
Sylvia Grace Borda is a Canadian-born artist who spent five years in Northern Ireland, lecturing at Queen’s University Belfast between 2007-2009. She described how while she was able to guide her students towards successful projects, she found it more difficult to identify one that would satisfy herself. Her interest in documentary topography, by the likes of Charles Marville and Eugene Atget, combined with a fascination in Modernist architecture, led her to produce Churches.
In her travels back and forth to Canada, people there would ask her questions about Northern Ireland. As part of trying to satisfy their curiosity, she realised that Northern Ireland’s Modernist churches offered a visual symbol of its religious divide: “However, since the buildings are Modernist and were originally designed to be undecipherable in terms of faith association — the viewer is left confounded.”
She presented this symbol in the form of photographic images on dinner plates — a set of 16 (“not 12: too religious”). Why plates? Because they are tactile not monumental, and because they are fragile objects, “much like the political arrangements at Stormont”.
The subsequent Q&A session started with a big question, what will the next 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland look like? Colin Graham answered with suggestions of internationalisation (mutual influences from home and abroad), portraiture without identity labelling (e.g. the work of Gareth McConnell), and landscape photography as an existential project.
In a question regarding the interests of the next generation of photographers in Northern Ireland, Donovan Wylie said that his course students at the University of Ulster are talking more about global issues than parochial ones. But a reply from the audience said that this was perhaps because such young people are consciously electing not to deal with the intricacies of communal politics in Northern Ireland. This provoked a quick review of Hannah Starkey’s work: she is from Northern Ireland but is it obvious in her work?
Here, Colin Graham suggested the work of Malcolm Craig Gilbert, Post Traumatic Exorcism, which Gilbert describes as images of the dreams inside his head. As a former RUC officer, the Northern Ireland influences are there to be seen. Yet the chosen theme of trauma can be interpreted and understood by a wider audience.
With a sense of wryness, Colin Graham mooted whether “Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography” condemned those exhibited to history. He looks forward to the next 30 years of photography in Northern Ireland, but wants new photographers to react to what has been done so far, not imitate it.
Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography exhibition is held at Belfast Exposed (21 Donegall Street) and The MAC (Saint Anne’s Square), from 10th May to 7th July. The accompanying book is available to purchase (£30) at both venues.