The work of sixty-three members of the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association is on display from March 8th until March 24th at Ormeau Baths Gallery. The exhibit, entitled “Out of the Darkness” opens the day after the Northern Irish assembly election. While I was told that this was purely a coincidence, not only did it assure international press coverage (as evidenced by the Spanish film crew that were setting up as we were leaving) but more importantly, it illustrated just how historic the expected power-sharing government between two historic enemies really is. In the shiny, Starbucks version of Belfast, it is far too easy to forget the dark days of random killings, internment, and general fear that existed on this small area of a small island for several decades.
When you walk into the gallery, you are immediately confronted by the bleakness of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. The room is filled with blown-up black and white photographs that include images of a fatal shot of a rubber bullet, a man surveying the ruins of his home, a teenager who had been tarred, feathered, and tied to a lamppost by the IRA, and perhaps the most intriguing, an escaped tiger cornered by a gunman on the Shore Road.
The next room becomes more sanitized as the photographs shift into colour. Digital photos of grieving family members and the aftermath of bombings are interspersed with sports photos and human-interest shots of Stormont on a snowy day. While this room probably represented a more even-handed and nuanced portrayal of life in Northern Ireland, which has suffered from the simplistic, American driven portrayals found in Captain Planet and The Devil’s Own, the evocative quality of the images in the first room showed the difference between photography as art instead of merely the recording of events.
At a recent community meeting concerning methods of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past, a participant offered, “Not everyone here is a victim, but we are all survivors.” The images you see in this exhibit are reminders of what Northern Ireland has survived over the past forty years; the images you see when you walk out of Ormeau Baths Gallery into the construction zones of the new Belfast are evidence of what Northern Ireland is becoming and will be.
Don’t miss this exhibit—it’s worth the time, it’s free, and it’s up until March 24th.
(Photo above by Alan Lewis, December 2002)