On 17 October, 1983, a show called Belfast Exposed opened at the Peoples’ Theatre, Conway Mill, between the Falls and Shankill Roads on the nationalist side of the ‘Peace Wall’. It was the height of The Troubles and Belfast was still dealing with the social trauma of the hunger strikes – the series of politically motivated, self-imposed fasts that had killed 10 Republican prisoners at HM Prison Maze, including Bobby Sands, a Republican political prisoner who was elected to the British parliament while on hunger strike. But this exhibition aimed to cross the sectarian divides, and to go beyond the usual photojournalism to articulate the working-class experience of the city.
It was put together by Danny Burke, a local teacher and trade unionist who put out the call for “any photographer who wishes to explore any aspects of the city or its people – photographs being preferred on the basis of content rather than artistic or technical merit”. He aimed to show Belfast “from the inside”, rather than through the lens of outsider press photographers, and the exhibition ended up including more than 200 images by photographers from a range of backgrounds.
The group came to be known as Belfast Exposed, and Burke set up a ‘cross-community’ committee to find more venues around the city and beyond. A year later the poet Seamus Heaney opened a Belfast Exposed exhibition at the Bank of Ireland Gallery in Baggot Street, Dublin, and remarked on the “powerful, democratic feel running through these photographs”.
In 2003 Belfast Exposed found a permanent home in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, and it is now firmly established as Northern Ireland’s principal gallery of contemporary photography. It shows work from all over the world and engaging with contemporary issues that reach far beyond Northern Ireland and its history, but it hasn’t forgotten its socially conscious roots either. Each exhibition is accompanied by local community events, seminars, workshops, talks and discussions, which aim to reach out beyond the gallery and on to the streets.
“Staying true to our founding mission we continue to value photography as a way of challenging clichéd and reductive representation,” the gallery says in its press materials, “so that people might better understand and be understood in the world.”
“Belfast Exposed is primarily interested in supporting and promoting photography-based practice, particularly critical documentary forms,” says gallery manager Ciara Hickey. “Through the gallery programme, Belfast Exposed has worked on a number of major participatory projects that involve immersive, long-term engagement, with a critical awareness of the artist and participant relationship.
Recurring thematic interests include urbanism and the contemporary city, identity, memory and the archive and particular social issues, including migration and the experience of marginalised communities in contemporary Northern Ireland.”
Funded primarily by Arts Council Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council, the gallery was selected to participate in Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum initiative in 2012, one of nine British institutions invited to do so. This initiative is designed to help museums and galleries build local community partnerships and it, plus finding a permanent home, has allowed Belfast Exposed to start to digitise its archive. So far almost 2000 images have been digitised, out of a huge cache of around 500,000 negatives and slides donated by both professional and amateur photographers, and it’s now available to members of the public under the name Archive of the Troubles. “It represents a valuable historical document, recording political, cultural and social change in Northern Ireland over more than three decades,” Hickey says.
The exhibitions in the main space are backed up by Belfast Futures – a project funded by the Foyle Foundation which allows the upstairs Exchange Gallery to be devoted to Belfast School of Art graduates. Some of the emerging stars of the next generation have debuted in this space most recently Jan McCullough, who won the Kassel Photobook Dummy Award with Home Instruction Manual just before her exhibition opened in the gallery.
Ken Grant, documentary photographer and lecturer at Belfast School of Art, sits on the board of Belfast Exposed, and has been instrumental in creating this project. “Belfast Exposed has engaged with Northern Ireland in ways that have secured its place at the heart of the cultural life of the city,” he says.
“From an early and responsive gathering of materials that have become a thorough and very human Archive of the Troubles era, to its ongoing community collaborations, the organisation has maintained a rich engagement with communities across Belfast and Northern Ireland. As a consequence, it has gathered not only an archive that is fittingly complex and rich, but a relationship with the people whose lives are accounted for in those pictures.”
Belfast Futures is designed to allow the school’s best prospects to capitalise on their success, he adds, hopefully turning doing well in college into sustainable international careers. “Once photographers and new students arrive in Ireland, it’s not difficult to persuade them to stay, it’s a vibrant and affecting place,” Grant says. “But it’s also important to get what happens here out into the wider world, to get our photographers and their work in conversation with voices beyond the island.
“That’s how perceptions change – and that’s happening – and the work we do together is a growing contribution to that,” he continues. “The drive to develop a cultural partnership that nurtures new photography, that celebrates and articulates both the medium’s importance and relevance, is a genuine one. It’s an ambition led by photographers, writers, educators, directors and curators who have each made professional and emotional investments in both the region and the value of photography as a tool of education, understanding and creative development here.”
This matters to the people of Belfast, in a way few other cities can understand, Grant says. “Where once Belfast was a news item, addressed by a language of photojournalism, now Belfast, for the first time, is being told from within,” he says. “Photographers’ interests are complex, progressive, sensitised and long-sighted. I’m hoping the collaborations we all work towards will play their part in the next phases of Belfast’s cultural history, opening up an awareness of what’s going on here to audiences beyond these shores.”
Find out more about Belfast Exposed here.