On Gilles Peress in Source

In Source 107 I review Gilles Press’ monumental work(s), Annals of the North and Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. Unedited text is below (for final version see Source 107):

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is an overwhelming project. It certainly overwhelmed me. It nearly exceeds itself and its ambitions. It arrives in a cardboard box, with the title pre-printed on the cover. Inside the box is another cardboard box, also with the title printed on it. Inside that box is a bag – a kind of large and sturdy tote bag, I suppose, again with the title printed on it and a background derived from graffiti. Inside the bag are two more boxes. One box is marked I + II and titled Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. The second box is marked III and has the graffiti pattern on the top. Inside the first box are two books, landscape format, titled I and II. (There is a slip of paper explaining the nature, manufacturing process and delicacy of the printing of the numerals I and II, respectively, on the covers.) Each book includes hundreds of images. In the second box item III is another book, over 800 pages in length, entitled Annals of the North, which functions as a kind of appendix, addendum, critical reflection, index, history book and commentary on I and II. 

            That’s just the physical object(s). The photographic work in this books is also overwhelming. The thousands of images here include many which stand alone as brilliant in their particular subgenre: intimate domestic documentary; political journalism; anthropological study; riot photography; aftermath; social documentary. It’s almost ludicrous to write that Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is a testimony to Gilles Peress’ career-long engagement with Northern Ireland – the literal weight of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is its own testimony to that – but it is also an indication of his versatility and intellectual rigour as a photographer that he can have made so many images, in differing contexts and alluding to, or definitively in, different genres and for so many of them to be so perfect, perceptive and poised. 

            Book I’s first image is of a flock of rooks in flight in the sky, black scraps on a grey background. The second is a country lane, in receding perspective. The third is a country lane with a signs which says ‘POWER IN THE BLOOD’ (an evangelical proclamation) nailed onto a tree. The fourth is an urban lane, in receding perspective. And so we enter the world of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, dominated by Belfast and Derry, but somehow framed by the rooks and the trees. Book II ends (and bookends the photographs) with the rooks again, but cropped more widely so that they are further away. It’s filmic and neat, given the wealth of material that washes between these visual parentheses, and it signals the problem which Peress confesses he had in shaping the project (Annals of the North contains previously unpublished versions of the books which are now Whatever You Say, Say Nothing). Attempts to explain as well as show the conflict in Northern Ireland nag away at this project, and surface most explicitly in Annals of the North. Occasionally, attempting to impose that shape, in both its texts and the organisation of the images, it perceives the conflict as primal, or tribal, or somehow ineffably of the place (hence the rooks > countryside > religious belief > urban laneway sequence). Peress is and was so intimate with the place, so aware of its people and its spaces, that it must have been almost impossible to stand back from the cacophony of imagery to frame a larger narrative. And it is in finally not resisting the urge to shape and explain, especially towards the end of Annals of the North, that the project, loses a little of its power.

            While the various riot images, for example, or the very moving closeness Peress which manages in recording of domestic poverty of Belfast and Derry, are among the most obviously important work here, Peress’ ability to see, up close, the extraordinarily furious, carnivalesque energy which bursts out into, and is therefore always in, this society, is one of the standout features of this work. (Chris Klatell, in his text in Annals of the North, refers specifically to Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous work on carnival in Rabelais to explain this). The carnivalesque here is not only, as might be expected, found around the darkness and fire of bonfires, but in Halloween costumes and masks, creating some of the most surreal imagery of Northern Ireland I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure that even Bakhtin’s theory can explain quite what is happening, socially, culturally and psychologically at these moments.

            Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is organised via twenty-two ‘Chapters’, each of which is conceived of as a Day (there is an explanatory list in Annals of the North). This makes the entire work (or Books I and II at any rate) almost symphonic in its organisation, with repetitions and recurrences of places, people and visual tropes. Linear history is sacrificed in this system and it needs a keen eye to dress codes or the urban regeneration of inner-city Belfast and Derry, for example, to place some of the work in historical context. The advantage  of this way of working is visual; the disadvantage is that Northern Ireland becomes a place with a single event happening in it (the Troubles in toto). The ‘Days’ structure can also collapse complex social phenomenon into singularities. There are a series of brilliant images of Orange parades and Twelfth of July festivities, just as there are of the horsey social activities of the upper-classes. But there is maybe a slight blind spot about the social hierarchies and gradations which structure unionism in the North and make each finely-tuned grade of the Protestant social classes interdependent but distinct. (This is replicated in Annals when the text implies that bowls, very much a lower-middle class activity, is socially equivalent to fox-hunting).

            To be clear, though, Peress embeds within the project a recognition that his attempts to give shape to the whole is narrated via his own experience (some of the latter textual parts of Annals of the North forget this, though), and he consciously draws attention to the moments which have shaped his perception. Book I of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing contains within it a mini-narrative which permeates the entirety of the project and which is retold in Annals of the North. Its significance is signalled, from outside the text, as it were, by the black pages on which it is printed, making appear like an inset into the book. Peress recounts how he met and befriended Denis Donaldson, a Sinn Féin activist and IRA volunteer. He includes a famous image of Donaldson with the Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands, when they were both in Long Kesh prison. He includes informal images which he  himself made of Donaldson: at work, socialising, and in his family home. There is an ominousness about the long sequence, which, if you know Donaldson’s story, is apparent from the start, because Denis Donaldson was a British agent. He famously and publicly confessed to being so on national television, having been outed as such after a PSNI raid on Sinn Féin’s offices in the Stormont Parliament. Having made his confession, Donaldson slipped away from the public eye to a remote cottage in Donegal. Four months later he was murdered in the cottage by the Real IRA. Peress tells this story. Donaldson appears earlier in the book in the back of a black taxi in Belfast and then again in a series of images with some real intimacy between subject and photographer. One image resonates in particular – Donaldson appears in what should be an ordinary moment, talking on a phone. But, having seen him previously socialising and laughing, his serious demeanour and detachment make it look like a scene from a spy movie – which, in a way, it is. Peress’ realisation that Donaldson, his friend, was informing for much of the time they knew each other permeates the entire work here, giving it an air of uncertainty, betrayal and confusion (and this jars with those other moments in which Peress tries to be surer about what Northern Ireland is). 

            In Annals of the North Peress returns to the Donaldson story, both more forensically and more personally. There are reproductions of media images of Donaldson, of the reporting of his story, and there is testimony from Peress himself in which there is real anguish. Inserted into Annals of the North, just as it’s inserted into Book I, the Donaldson story perhaps begins to make sense of something that is excessive about Annals of the North, in the same way that the whole project (the bag, the boxes, the books) is excessive. Annals of the North includes over-determined attempts to take hold of the mess of Northern Ireland and to give it a shape and a structure. It does that in two ways. The first is by replicating that ‘Day’ trope which orders Books I and II, this time in textual form, taking events from the totality of Irish history and listing them by the day on which they happened (including events going back to the seventeenth century). This is, for sure, both an urge to be comprehensive and, like that ordering of the photos section by ‘Days’, disruptive. 

That will to the encyclopedic continues in Annals of the North with its encapsulation of documents, reports, and a Glossary. The text, much of its written by Chris Klatell, becomes more urgent, more insistent. “Modernity hates the North of Ireland”, Klatell writes at one point, suggesting that Northern Ireland is a place in which “every definition remains contested, every act of naming induces anxiety … Other colonial conflicts have the perceived clarity of race, of color around which to organise themselves”. This critically attractive notion, that Northern Ireland is, or was, outside of the rationalist metaphysics of the West is, or was, an oft repeated trope. It tends to be a dark celebration of Northern Ireland as proof of the West’s incapacities. It’s rare to see this trope aligned with the specific exceptionalism which notes the additional ‘difficulty’ of Northern Ireland’s whiteness in a postcolonial setting. But does modernity hate the North of Ireland? Is that what Whatever You Say, Say Nothing shows? It depends on what you think modernity is. But understanding oneself via affinity to the nation and the nation-state, post-Reformation sectarian violence, and colonial acquisitiveness, all fuelled by an economy in post-industrial decline, could be the definition of the ‘modern’ since the seventeenth century. Annals of the North, as a book, comes close to asserting one potential outcome of thinking in this way, which is to attribute the political violence in Northern Ireland to a kind of pre-modern violence. Annals of the North is punctuated by images from butchers’ shops (or perhaps abattoirs), with the hung and cut corpses of animals commenting, as it were, the images which they follow and precede. At the end of Annals of the North, Klatell, and implicitly Peress, I suppose, pose the question of why Northern Ireland was violent, but never as violent as Rwanda (another place which Peress knows well). The butchery images push towards some ‘tribal and intimate revenge’, as Heaney calls it, but this moment in the text is, without control, pondering something else. Perhaps the answer is that Northern Ireland was in modernity, whatever that may, and not outside of it; that the violence in Northern Ireland was ‘Western’, contained by the very forces which propelled it.

But to reiterate: this is a truly extraordinary piece of work. Even just the recounting of Peress’ role in the Widgery and Saville Inquiries into Bloody Sunday is important enough, as photographic work, as reportage and as pure human testimony, to stand as a historical document (In Book II the images and documents related to Bloody Sunday are, as with Denis Donaldson’s story, marked out by the black background and edges, visible as a section without opening the book). Peress is an exceptional photographer and a dedicated witness. His patience and perceptiveness are clear in every image. He sees the North of Ireland as fully as anyone. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland during the period in which these images were taken, I found going through this book sensorially overpoering. That the project is driven, and riven, by its urge to say everything, rather than nothing, about Northern Ireland is further testimony to Peress’ accumulated knowledge and experience of Northern Ireland. If you can afford Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, get it.


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