Documenting the Political: Belfast Photo Festival, Various Venues.

Text by Angela Darby

The Belfast Photo Festival is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. The organisers have managed to encompass a large part of the city centre working in partnership with 20 venues and exhibiting the work of over 50 regional and international photographic artists. The media perception of Belfast is generally one of a recovering war zone scarred by years of hostility and conflict. Evidence of this still emerges during the July’s notorious ‘marching season’ with its sectarian overtones and civil unrest. Presented with such a heavy association, one might ask how can a photo festival based in Belfast during the summer months avoid the city’s clichéd images without simultaneously disregarding its notorious history?

The festival’s director, Michael Weir explains: “we want to show there is a lot more to the country’s photography. We intentionally wanted to focus on the country’s present and future photography while reflecting on the past.” This aspiration is evident in the impressive photographic archive presented at the Red Barn Gallery. In the collection of astounding street scenes dating back to the beginning of the last century is an image by Frankie Quinn that captures the stalemate that blighted a large part of Northern Ireland’s recent political history. The photograph documents the ‘Ulster Says No!’ campaign led by Dr Ian Paisley in the 1980s. It is an overhead shot of Belfast City Hall circa 1985 with a throng of approximately 100,000 people assembled together to declare ‘No!’ to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and ultimately ‘No!’ to equality. With the luxury of retrospect, the image fills you with a sense of disconcerting futility, what if there had been a more positive response to the agreement and power sharing at the time. Did it really have to take a further ten years of conflict to achieve a semblance of peace? The Red Barn’s archive serves as a testimony to the stereotyped divisions of our past and provides an historical backdrop against which to view the other exhibitions within the festival.

An exhibition that directly engages with other national stereotypes is displayed at The Waterfront Hall. Europe, a series of imposing images by the German photographic artist Christof Pluemacher has captured clichéd activities associated with different nations across Europe. Like an anthropologist studying social behaviours the artist identifies and labels his subjects. In so spanish… we are treated to the spectacle of a brightly adorned matador bravely parading in all his machismo splendour. The bullring is his arena, gloriously composed by the photographer. The viewer becomes an onlooker, witnessing the climatic moments leading to inevitable death. Under the heading so british… white clad players participate in a traditional game of lawn bowls and elsewhere a marching army is pointedly titled so german…, One wonders how Pluemacher might choose to depict Northern Irish inhabitants in his ongoing photographic project.

According to Weir, the festival organisers did not apply a thematic approach to their programming: “we felt we would be…restrictive and less inclusive. So with this in mind we have taken the approach of presenting national photography in an international context, to help inspire and enhance peoples’ perceptions and perspectives of photography in a broader sense.” However there does seem to be an emergent pattern that connects several of the exhibitions together, one of inertia and entropy. Images of extensively harvested Irish peat bogs in County Offaly, are presented as records of ravaged landscapes in Under a Grey Sky at The Golden Thread Gallery. The artist, Simon Burch has documented the inevitable decline of this traditional fuel source over a period of four years. In Kilmacshane 01 (2010) the uncut peat rows have been covered with a protective film of black plastic sheeting, the light hitting the plastic renders it metallic-like, and the rough edges resemble jagged rows of teeth positioned to devour the ancient earth below. Throughout the festival, one is struck by images that force us to reflect upon our material consumption, our desire to attain at any cost. At the John Hewitt Bar, Kenneth O’Halloran addresses human culpability in Tales from the Promised Land. Ghost-town housing estates and abandoned plots of land are reduced to wastelands in the wake of the collapse of the housing market. The curator Barry W. Hughes confronts us with this same sense of dissipation in the group show Long Way to Paradise at Platform Arts. And again we witness the consequences of Ireland’s economic and cultural transformation in Common Place by Eoin O’ Conaill at the Ulster Hall. The internationally renowned artists, Paul Seawright and Sophie Ristelhueber exhibiting at The Ormeau Baths Gallery both observe the traumatic effects of war on cityscapes and landscapes in Detonating Rough Ground.

The festival’s well curated program showcases many high quality works, the contents of which could easily tour to any international venue. Moreover the open submission opportunity garnered a huge response of approximately 4000 entries from across the globe. And of the14 selected artists one in particular really stands out. Austrian artist, Klaus Pilcher’s documented images of taxidermy museum exhibits entitled Skeletons In The Closet have a surreal quality to them and are extraordinary in both composition and content. In one of the photographs exhibited at The Spaniard Bar, a pterodactyl and its tree lie redundant and decommissioned in a Museum’s basement. Ladders attached to the wall above the beast suggest a comment on evolutionary ascendancy and inevitable extinction. The annihilating nature of time has been perfectly captured by Pilcher’s lens and it’s a theme that drifts through many of the Festival’s excellent exhibitions.

Belfast Photo Festival continues until 14 August. Individual exhibitions continue up until 28 August.

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Kenneth O’Halloran – From Series: The Promised Land
Sophie Ristelbueber – From Series: Detonating Rough Ground
David Gepp – ‘An Italian Dream’
Frankie Quinn – From Series ‘Red Barn Archive’
All courtesy the artist