Review of NI: 30 Years of Photography

The current issue of Irish Studies Review includes a review of Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography by George Legg. The review can be read in full here, while below are a couple of excerpts:

As the subtitle title to Colin Graham’s extraordinary study suggests, Northern Irish photography has become steadily entangled with notions of chronology, documentary and history. Indeed, as Graham tells us, it was the changing perception of history initiated by the peace process, which first lured him into writing about how Northern Irish photography had captured the last “30 years”. For Graham, photography in the North “acquired the capacity to see the ghosts of the past in the present” (18), and as such was able to rub subtly against the logic of the peace process and its desire “to filter out that which did not fit into or attend on the present moment” (195). In many ways, Graham’s study continues this dissident strain as it skilfully threads a narrative through the shifting contours of Northern Ireland’s last thirty years. Graham, like the photography he considers, also artfully draws the ghosts of the past into the North’s present and future formations.


In many ways, by constructing this volume Graham has begun to answer these questions himself. The sheer scale, breadth and range of the material he covers – a variety undoubtedly aided by the considerable photographic resources of Belfast Exposed – allows him to compile something close to the collective memory of the Troubles, which he discusses in relation to Donovan Wylie and Timothy Prus’s Scrapbook series from 2009. The key term here is “aftermath”, and it is a concept that pulls in divergent directions (70). It tugs at ideas of remembrance, creating a time-lag between an event and its effects in which we can pause and reflect upon its wider significance. Graham’s profound skill in reading the precise, often unnoticed, resonances carried by all these photographs allows him to expose the vivid dialogues they strike between the Troubles of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Rubbing against this, however, is a desire to move beyond the particularities of the North, to use the “aftermath” as a means of looking at Northern Ireland without the burdens and memories of the conflict that has dominated so much of its history. This is a task with which Graham tentatively concludes his study and one which raises a key difficulty in current engagements with the methodology of reconciliation: the problem of trying to move forward without suppressing what has gone before. If there is a way in which this can be achieved, then perhaps it is to be found in the overall tenor of Graham’s book, in which he delicately traces how these images document the Troubles so as to expose the multiple and alternative futures they might contain.


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