Essays Photography

Foto Foyle 2012 Exhibitions

As coincidence would have it, I was in Derry-Londonderry for a set of meetings and decided to stay on for an early evening launch event of the 2012 Foto Foyle programme of photo exhibitions. Inside The Playhouse was a display of a new body of work by Christof Pluemacher, “one of Germany’s foremost photographic artists”. His exhibition, “Europe”, is a set of images that purposefully portray national stereotypes, e.g. “…So Spanish”, “…So British”, “…So Dutch”, “…So French”, and “…So German”:

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Foyle Foto Director, Michael Weir, described the different exhibitions on display, including an Open Submission at the Tower Museum, and Tribes (by Lucia Herrero) at the Big Screen, Waterloo Place. He was followed by welcoming remarks by the Mayor, Councillor Maurice Devenney:

As I am at the opposite end of being a fine art photographer such as Pluemacher, I demonstrated the capacities of my iPhone 4S, with magnetic snap on lenses by Photojojo. There was particular fascination with the fish eye and macro lenses.

I went over for the immediately following launch of the Open Submission group exhibition at the Tower Museum. I was expecting more images — there were about a dozen, based around four themes. I guess I’m saying that I would like to see more photography exhibitions featuring local artists!

The Foto Foyle programme runs until 11th February, and there’s a talk on Thursday, 2nd February: “Image and Reality: Photography and the Construction of an Ideal of Irish ‘Irishness'”, 1pm at the Tower Museum. I hope I have more work meetings in Derry that day.

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Essays Photography

Contraband at Belfast Exposed

Belfast Exposed has on display an exhibition by Taryn Simon. Entitled Contraband, to view is a sampling of 1,075 photographs of items detained or seized from passengers (and express mail) entering the United States.

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The Belfast Exposed exhibition is in the main gallery, with a weekly lunchtime talk every Wednesday. I caught the last talk; the exhibition runs until 30th December.

Today’s talk (see above) was given by Belfast Exposed staff member, Alissa Kleist, who explained that the main theme of the exhibition is desire. Every kind of object shown represents some element of what is valued and desired by the recipient society.

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Some of these illicit items are universal: alcohol, drug paraphernalia, fake gold, pirated movies, sexual stimulants.

Others are specific to the cultural identities of the population, e.g. duck tongue, fried guinea pigs, vegetables (used for voodoo).

And there are some items that are forbidden only because of the state’s politics: witness the confiscation of Cuban cigars.

I suggested to Alissa that it would be interesting to see a similar project done in another country, especially one less conspicuously consumerist.

For example, Madame Oui and my experience travelling into the Maldives was that they are very strict about prohibiting any importing of alcohol of any description, including miniatures. (Not that we were attempting any smuggling!)

How about a cataloguing of what would be confiscated in a less open society? What would customs official in Iran seize? Are foreign newspapers actually detained in China (or anywhere else)?

Meanwhile, on the theme of airports and customs, Alissa advised me of the work of Christien Meindertsma, whose project, Checked Baggage, reveals over 3,000 items confiscated in the course of a week at Schipol Airport baggage control. The outcome is more specific to our new world of airline travel post 9/11, with the display of expected items — scissors, corkscrews, razor blades, pen knives, etc.

But what I particularly like is how she attached one of these items to each of the books published in the same name, thus disabling it from being transported in person over the air. Touché!

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Graphic portrayals – Northern Ireland, graphic novels and the peace process

Dr Gordon Gillespie, who is a researcher at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, gave a presentation on “Graphic Portrayals: Northern Ireland, Graphic Novels and the Peace Process”, at the Linen Hall Library.

Gordon started with a clarification that he was going to talk about graphic novels/comic books, not cartoons, and material that was produced for commercial purposes rather than for political or propaganda motives.

He described how there is significant research on Troubles-related literature and movies, but that graphic novels have been largely overlooked. He said that this could be because there isn’t much material here to examine, and/or that it was seen as juvenile and trivial, and not worth much consideration. Gordon added later that as comic books are ephemeral by nature, what was produced wasn’t regularly saved, let alone analysed.

For Gordon, the “golden age” of Northern Ireland-related graphic novels was from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, which coincided with the developing peace process and was influenced by events on the ground.

He said that it was important to bear in mind that these stories were produced as part of the massive worldwide comic book industry, and how changes in technology played an important part in why Northern Ireland-related stories appeared. For example, advances in printing technology allowed publishers to produce smaller runs while generating a profit.

Gordon then went through a Northern Ireland chronology of graphic novels, which included:

  • V for Vendetta (1981)
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
  • Watchmen (1986)
  • Web of Spiderman (1987)
  • Nightwing and Speedy (1988)
  • St George (1988)
  • Black Knight (1990)
  • Green Arrow (1991)
  • Crisis: Troubled Souls (1989)
  • Troubled Souls; Heartland
  • Judge Dredd (1991)
  • Dicks (1997)
  • Holy Cross (I, II, III) (1993-1997)
  • DNA Swamp (1997)
  • Keltor
  • Good Craic
  • Small Axe (2005)
  • The Punisher (2002)
  • Back on the Road (2008)

I suggest you watch Gordon’s presentation (below) for his description of the significance of each novel:

The last one on the list, Back on the Road, was published in association with the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association (BCDA), and I was privileged to attend its launch:

There is a remarkable drop in the amount of Northern Ireland-related stories published in graphic novels since the 1990s. Gordon suggested that this is due to the Northern Ireland situation as being deemed as “solved”, post 1998 Agreement, as well as comic book writers’ attention turning to new protagonists post-9/11. For me, Captain America comes immediately to mind.

I am pleased that Gordon has compiled this presentation of graphic novels and the peace process, namely because he is the best person for the task — an interesting mix of academia and pop culture. Where is our “Media Studies in Divided Societies” course offering in Northern Ireland?


Cartoons in Conflict

As part of its 2010 Summer School, Community Dialogue ( hosted an exhibition of international cartoonists’ contributions to The Parents Circle – Families Forum (, which is a grassroots organisation based in the Middle East.

The Parents Circle – Families Forum represents more than 500 families, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost a family member to the conflict.

At the Belfast launch event at Farset International, Springfield Road, Forum members Robi Damelin (Israeli) and Seham Ikhlayel (Palestinian) described the background to this exhibition and their project work, as well as shared their stories, experiences and hopes.

I was particularly intrigued to learn more about their “Crack in the Wall” project, which will make interactive use of websites and social media. As Robi explained, with it becoming increasingly difficult to physically meet up, the use of phone lines and online resources become vital.

Robi and Seham insist that any peace agreement that does not involve the people in the process nor include reconciliation as a specific outcome is doomed to failure.

Robi also has no time for the display of flags, citing Israeli flags in Protestant areas and Palestinian flags in Catholic areas of Belfast:

“I don’t think that’s helping anybody. It just makes you feel good about yourself. I don’t see how Seham’s life was improved by a Palestinian flag.”

After Robi and Seham spoke, there was a Q&A session, with inevitable comparisons between the Middle East and Northern Ireland experiences. My impression was that the locals weren’t actually listening to Robi’s understanding (or incomprehension) of forgiveness. That is, several people tried to probe why it is apparent that Christian-populated places put such a premium on forgiveness. At one point Robi said that when Bishop Desmond Tutu insists on forgiveness, that’s immoral; you can’t righteously compel forgiveness.

There were workshop-style discussions afterwards, which I wasn’t able to stay for. But I am very grateful for Community Dialogue for facilitating this exhibition’s trip to Northern Ireland.

Robi and Seham were also interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster Arts Extra, where they described their work further:


@TroubledImages Essays Photography

Troubled Images – A personal perspective by Gordon GILLESPIE

Troubled Images Exhibition
14 June 2010 – 11 September 2010
Location: Vertical Gallery
Admission: Free
Troubled Images Exhibition


All 70 political posters from our ‘Troubled Images’ exhibition, documenting the years of the Northern Ireland conflict, have been hung five storeys high in our Vertical Gallery. 

The exhibition has travelled throughout the world to inform and educate the general public about the turbulent years of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. It is now ‘home’ again and available for all to see.

@MrUlster Essays Photography

John CARSON – Friend Map revisited

During 1975 and 1976, artist John Carson visited friends and family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and photographed them in their homes. The photographs were placed on a map of the area to create an artwork depicting a social network of connections and relationships that crossed geographical, religious and political divisions.

Some 30 years later, Carson decided to revisit this network of friends, speaking with as many of them as possible about their life experiences over the past three decades. Carson wanted to give a voice to the faces from his original Friend Map and reflect on how their life experiences compared to youthful aspirations. The resulting artwork is a compilation of extracts from video interviews with 42 people still living in the greater Belfast area.

Western Michigan University released a press statement about the forthcoming exhibition at the Gwen Frostic School of Art at WMU.