The Power of the Image How photography informed and influenced the Northern Ireland Peace process Panel discussion at Keble College, Oxford as part of the Oxford Photography Festival.
A big topic and a big panel of speakers to tackle it, including photographers, politicians, journalists and theorists: Sir Jonathan Phillips, Paul Murphy MP, Philip Jacobson, Mike Abrahams (photographer), Gerry Fitzgerald (photographer and Belfast Telegraph editor), Dr Sandra Plummer, and Lord Trimble.
The session began with a selection of work across 40 years of Northern Irelands political history, complied by Gerry Fitzgerald, former picture editor, Belfast Telegraph. The premise was a discussion of the notion that images have greater impact than the written word, and have the power to change the course of history.
Such an example is the photograph of Father Daly waving a white handkerchief as he and several others try to get dying Jackie Duddy to safety on Bloody Sunday. The image taken on 30th January 1972 still resonates 42 years later as a symbol of grief, atrocity and finally justice. The image is grainy blurred black and white, captured instinctively as the atrocity began to unfold. The crouched figure of Father Daly supplicating the path to safety and the desperate shocked faces of those carrying the dying man; it is a narrative frozen in a moment, yet spilling over time.
Copyright Fulvio Grimaldi, Museum of Free Derry
Mike Abrahams commented that the Saville inquiry’s use of photography provided forensic and visual evidence that contradicted the evidence given by the armed forces and that it also offered a more reliable witness than that of fragile memories. Gerry Fitzgerald added that cameras being there to witness become our eyes, reading the story unfolding as text would not have the same impact. He goes on to say that some of the images from Northern Ireland’s history also show the horrors and futility of what the country had come to and what that signified throughout the world – therefore images can change opinion in N.I and across the world. They can also be used to help bring justice and resolution.
From a politicians perspective Paul Murphy and Lord Trimble offered examples of political enemies being photographed together to have impact upon the divided peoples as well as international audiences especially the USA. For example, Paul Murphy and Gerry Adams being photographed shaking hands, an opportunity frowned upon by the N.I Press Office but which nevertheless began to break down barriers in public opinion. ‘Photography can have an impact on the public psyche and of course ultimately on the people that have to resolve these issues.’ Paul Murphy. A further insight into the framing of a scene, was the example of the assembly meeting in Stormont in 2007 with Ian Paisley sitting with Gerry Adams. In order to secure a photograph of what started as private talks with no press access (being carefully managed by the N.I Press Office). The table had to be set as a diamond shape rather than the two politicians seen as sitting together. Such was the fragile nature of the talks that power sharing had to have some degree of separation or opposition in the witnessing of it.
The panel explored the nature of manipulation in terms of how photographers are brought to ‘witness’ a propaganda stunt by, for example by Republicans, or indeed by the armed forces. There was the example of the IRA having heavy caliber machine guns M60 and speculations if it existed. In Derry an IRA unit appeared with this on a tripod and photographers were invited to see a political march but really to photograph the M60 machine gun. Fitzgerald recounts that it was a propaganda stunt used in every paper in Britain and Ireland for a terrorist organization. The morality of what should be shown arose in discussion with picture editors struggling with decisions to show the dead, to show a body or part of, and how most complaints about the use of images were linked to the disrespect and shock of seeing this type of image. Yet editorial decisions took the view that what was actually happening needed to be seen, that people and the world needed to know and to also bear witness.
As an audience and viewing public we know images from events such as Nagasaki – the ‘Fat Man’ mushroom cloud; 9/11 ‘The Falling Man’; the napalm attack in Vietnam where we see a young girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc running away from the bomb site. These images are seared in our minds and they tell powerful stories, continually resonating. A current exhibition, ‘The Sensory War’, in Manchester City Art Gallery includes a continuation of the story of the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors of the bombings, in the intervening period have produced drawings, paintings of their memories and experience. They bring a visceral depth to the horror of that iconic image.
Perhaps with less sympathy and some humour, we hear how the political representatives on the panel talked of being caught off guard and how the Press like to make fools of them, often taking things out of context. Politicians in particular being vulnerable to be made to look foolish and the impact it has on the public opinion. Photographers on the panel relating how photo opportunities are so controlled in an attempt to avoid misrepresentation that they therefore respond to this control by making the most of the moments when politicians do put their foot in their mouths. Photographers being at their wits end to subvert the process of being so stage-managed and the effort that goes into it: it seems a fair response!
Fitzgerald referred to ‘coma moments’, whereby the disbelief of an image appearing must have meant coming out of a coma having missed some historic event along the way. Such images include a photograph of Lord Trimble holding hands with Bono and John Hume; of Martin McGuinness and the Queen, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley.
Dr Sandra Plummer brought us yet another perspective in the work of Derry Camerawork. Of how a group of mainly working class women began to represent themselves and their community, producing photographs which were, ‘The output of a divided community whose experience of The Troubles far outweighs the transitory encounters of visiting photojournalists.’ Dr Plummer elaborated in that it was a reaction to the more sensationalist photographers who flew in and went off again – a very masculine approach to war, documentation and reportage. Northern Ireland was being represented and yet the story wasn’t fully told.
The limitations of the panel discussion were perhaps reflected in a predominantly male panel of MP’s and media representatives. Questions from the audience sought to redress this in the use of arts based photography rather than just photo-journalism. Dr Plummer’s inclusion of the indigenous community, the female voice and eye, in taking control of the types of images made and therefore viewed by others rather than being the Other.
There are many other examples of women and indigenous photographers and agencies who might have been included. It is time for Northern Ireland to represent itself and for the press, the arts and cultural establishments to enable it to do so.
As a photographer, an educator and a child of 1970’s Belfast, I have both a personal and academic interest in the subject and the context of the place and the image. Listening to some of these accounts and exploring the impact of imagery cannot help but move us away from the academic to feel and see and to hope for greater clarity. Can an image impact on peace, affect history – of course it can but only if we really see what we are looking at.