Northern Ireland exhibition captures conflict and change

A series of photographs showing how life in Northern Ireland has been captured by the press in the past 40 years is on show for a second time, at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast.

On view until 19 September, Out of the Darkness: 40 Years of Northern Ireland Press Photography is an exhibition of work from the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association (NIPPA). It includes scenes from the worst days of conflict in Derry and Belfast.

Many of the images capturing the ‘Troubles’became iconic, used by newspapers around the world, while later images reflect how photographers have had to adapt to working in ‘normal’conditions after so many years of conflict.

John Harrison, chairman of NIPPA, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, says the exhibition reflects the dramatic changes in Northern Ireland press photography in the past 40 years. From being small-time photographers capturing ‘bread and butter’events for the press in Belfast, many of Northern Ireland’s journalists were catapulted on to a far bigger stage and their work used around the world.

Despite the historic significance of their work, its daily nature meant that in the early days of the conflict, photographs were not preserved as a matter of routine – some negatives were lost and frequently shared among newspapers, creating problems of ownership and copyright.

Photographers tended to work in packs for protection, writes Harrison in a foreword to a book about the exhibition.

‘Photographers were often attacked with stones and fists, threatened with guns and warned in no uncertain terms that their lives were under threat,’he writes. ‘Some were pulled from vehicles, had cameras seized or stolen, were hit with plastic bullets and hurt either by accident or design in riot situations.’

As events drew more interest, attracting photographers, from around the world, local journalists would be sought after not only for their local knowledge but because they knew what to do when things got dangerous.

When big names such as Magnum and Paris Match showed up, local photographers had an opportunity to sharpen their skills and see new equipment in action.

In recent years, photographers have had to come to terms with a fundamental change in the way they work. Photographs of those who were former foes are the ones now in demand.

Writes Harrison: ‘There is even a new breed of young photographer who hasn’t really experienced the dark days and only sees it through books and exhibitions.”

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