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The Outstaring Eye: Belfast in John Duncan’s photographs

Belfast dans les photographies de John Duncan : le regard dérangeant
Michaela Marková

Résumés

Cet article porte sur l’œuvre photographique de John Duncan (1968-), photographe né à Belfast, dont les clichés explorent l’environnement urbain de sa ville natale et de ses alentours, se concentrant notamment sur les représentations post Troubles et Cessez-le-feu. Nous avancerons ici l’hypothèse que les photographies de Duncan saisissent les changements du paysage urbain et permettent d’envisager la manière dont la population peut ou non élaborer sa relation intime avec la ville. Elles mettent au jour la tension existant entre les aspirations à la paix et la persistance de l’identification partisane, et révèlent la manière dont le paysage urbain change, mue par une volonté politique affirmée et malgré les divisions profondes qui subsistent encore. Nous étudierons ici comment les thèmes qui reviennent régulièrement dans l’œuvre de Duncan s’inscrivent dans une réflexion sur les réalités socio-politiques nord-irlandaises.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Historically this euphemism has been used to refer to two periods of sectarian violence, the (...)
  • 2 Antonio Gramsci, “State and Civil Society” in Selections from The Prison Notebooks of A (...)
  • 3 John Brannigan, “Northern Irish Conflict: Provisionals and Pataphysicians,” in James F. Engli (...)
  • 4 On the discussion of this phenomenon in literature, see for example, Eamonn Hughes, “‘Town of (...)

1Although the violent phase of the Troubles1 has drawn to a close, the conflict continues to resonate both socially and culturally, occupying that which Antonio Gramsci has called the interregnum, a situation in which the old is dying but the new has yet to be born2. Northern Ireland is still politically and culturally torn between the “‘bad’, dark notoriety of the past and precarious and tentative visions of [its] future.”3 This article will take as its focus the relationship between Belfast’s urban landscape and the Troubles or the post-ceasefire era in the photography of John Duncan. Prone to characterising Northern Ireland solely in terms of sectarian divisions, art and the media have often failed to adequately respond to the complexity of life in the region. As a result, Belfast has become a place separated from its image-in-circulation4. Dissatisfied with such inappropriate modes of representation, Duncan is one of many whose works seek to challenge these inadequate depictions of Belfast. The following essay will examine the main approaches Duncan employs in his work in order to better document the reality of Northern Irish life.

Flâneur

2Duncan, an established Belfast-based photographer and art critic5, is currently editor of the quarterly magazine, Source, and board chairman of the “Belfast Exposed” Photography gallery. Born in Belfast in 1968, Duncan first studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport (1989) with the intention of pursuing a photojournalistic career. However, not only by being exposed to the Troubles’ mainstream press coverage, but by spending time in the company of journalists responsible for reporting events in Belfast during that time, Duncan became disillusioned with those commentators’ attitudes to what was happening in Northern Ireland. “When you come from a place,” he says, “you have an attachment, you care about it in a certain way and to see people who had just jetted in for a couple of days and were staying in a hotel in the centre of the town made me think: ‘What’s all that about?’”6 Although aesthetically less attracted to the city’s dark alleys than open space, Duncan has sought to resist these perspectives by launching his own investigation into Belfast’s urban environment, this time through the medium of fine art photography7.

3In his early work – including solo exhibitions, Sinister and Dexter (1992), Fast Friend Les Dawnson (1995), You Are Here (1996) and Be Prepared (1998) – Duncan depicts settings that are not easily identified as part of Belfast and its environs. Even in the case of the 1996 collection, the viewer cannot be certain where that titular here actually is; in Belfast certainly, but where? Indeed, Duncan typically omits all city landmarks and recognisable signs – or even symbols – of the Troubles, thus making the familiar unfamiliar. Take, for example, the two photographs which follow:

Fig. 1. From Sinister and Dexter.

Fig. 1. From Sinister and Dexter.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

Fig. 2. From You Are Here.

Fig. 2. From You Are Here.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

  • 8 Inka Schube, “Be Prepared” in Be Prepared, Edinburgh: Stills, 1998, n. p., exhibition catal (...)
  • 9 On this subject, see, for example, Shauna McMullan, “Review: John Duncan, Street Level (...)

4The fact that the pictures do not depict images viewers tend to associate with the city’s violent past is desorientating. The photographs “disappoint,” writes Inka Schube in her review of Be Prepared. “They do this so single-mindedly it’s disturbing. This is indeed Belfast but I don’t see it.”8 The uncertainty of the setting may become rather frustrating for some. In fact, when looking at the photographs, even those who grew up in Belfast often get confused because they do not recognize the city. The longer they spend with the work, the more their feelings of disorientation intensify because the initially imagined clues as to where the places in the photographs may be become less obvious9.

  • 10 This disorienting effect is, as Colin Graham has confirmed, Duncan’s deliberate strategy: t (...)
  • 11 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, (...)

5In addition, the mood of the pictures is rather neutral. There is no special play of light that would engender in the viewer feelings of gloominess commonly associated with Belfast in the past. Duncan’s photographs thus force their viewers to ask numerous questions but they do not provide them with any answers10. However, “the incapacity to name,” as Roland Barthes argues, “is a good sign of disturbance”11, and although the uncertainty Duncan’s photographs gives rise to might initially seem disturbing, it can also prove to be emancipating: it disputes the fixed notions of Belfast previously considered as unchangeable. Indeed, the city is not, as the photographs demonstrate, a place solely defined by the Troubles or the opposing significations of the orange and the green.

  • 12 Such an activity is analogous with that of the flâneur, a person who walks the city in (...)

6Furthermore, by taking as his subject in these early collections commonplace objects or scenes that we might ordinarily overlook, Duncan also draws attention to the ways in which we process the maelstrom of stimuli experienced every day in order to function effectively. He asks how this practice of disregarding – of not giving a second glance – can affect the way in which we perceive the places to which we belong; particularly, when we consider ourselves to belong to a complex and unpredictable city-space, one that is in flux, resistant to fixed definitions, and held always in the state of becoming. For Duncan, it is necessary – especially when experiencing a highly contested place such as Belfast – to view our surroundings critically12. There, people cannot merely accept their location and “belong” to it – both notions must be renegotiated, time and time again. As such, Duncan’s early collections force viewers to become aware of – and return to – the commonplace but culturally invisible. Instead of accepting space within Duncan’s early photographs in a way that would fit in with preconceptions about Northern Ireland, the viewers have to negotiate and figure out their meaning for themselves. Such a comprehension might then enable them to appreciate Duncan’s later works which elaborate on other key attributes of space, namely the changeability and unpredictability of the urban.

Urban Development

  • 13 Eugene McCann, “Race, Protest, and Public Space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the U.S. City, (...)
  • 14 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, 38.
  • 15 “Very hard for the uninitiated to grasp,” the methods the architects use might result, Davi (...)

7The changeability of the city-space is a theme to which Duncan returns in Boom Town (2002), Trees from Germany (2003), and Boom Town II (ongoing). In these more recent collections, all of which document the urban (re)development of Belfast in the post 1998 Agreement era, Duncan asks whether such projects may ever truly become a part of the city. In fact, the photographs in these collections “shine a harsh light on the role of planners [...] in the production of exclusionary, abstract, public spaces in the city.”13 This perspective corresponds to Henri Lefebvre’s argument in The Production of Space that suggests that “the conceptualised space”, the space of “scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers”, is always closer to abstract space as it is conceived rather than lived14. Duncan’s photographs of Belfast’s (re)development convey a sense of artificiality present in or resulting from the developers’ transformations of the city15. The setting they capture has often the appearance of a theatrical set or an architectural drawing that resembles a preview of the future rather than an image of the lived reality, as might seem to be the case of the housing complex in the photograph below:

Fig. 3. From Trees from Germany.

Fig. 3. From Trees from Germany.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

  • 16 Such works would include, for example, In Connemara (1925-30), The Road through the Village(...)
  • 17 The very few figures that do actually appear in the photographs only feature in relation to (...)

8Additionally, the photographs, like Paul Henry’s post-impressionist paintings of Irish landscape16, depict Belfast almost void of human figures. For instance, in Trees from Germany, as the title of the collection indicates, more trees are depicted than people17. Moreover, although designed to signify Belfast’s hospitality, nurture, and, ultimately, growth, the imported trees instead epitomise the developments’ artificiality and thus challenge one’s sense of belonging, already quite a delicate concept in the Northern Irish context.

9Duncan’s collections Boom Town, Boom Town II and Trees from Germany do not seem to be revolutionary in the sense that they would raise awareness of a phenomenon previously unknown to Belfast’s residents. In reality, these people – who have often been denied sufficient say in the process of the city’s re-development – have contested the legitimacy of the proposed changes and many still regard the completed projects as alien and clinical additions to the Belfast cityscape. This fact does not diminish the power of Duncan’s images, quite the contrary. The photographs are powerful precisely because they bring home what was already clear to the city’s residents: that the developers’ actions contributed to further segregation of their city.

Partisan Identification

  • 18 Colin Graham, “Belfast in Photographs,” in Nicholas Allen and Aaron Kelly (eds.), The Citie (...)
  • 19 D. Brett, op. cit, n. p.

10Aware of the fact that creation and maintenance of abstract space adds to exclusionary notion of community – a concept owing to which Northern Ireland became infamous for during the Troubles – Duncan examines the tension between Belfast’s changing urban landscape and the deep divisions that, despite political progress, still affect Northern Ireland long after the ceasefires. He uses the documentary capacity of photography to “resist the inevitability and rush of progress which threatens to collapse and subsume the identity of a city in which identity was itself, for so long, a blight.”18 His later collections depict contradictions inherent in the planners’ and/or developers’ construction of space. Although these efforts might have been informed by aspirations for peace, Duncan’s photographs attest that the results often augment the persistence of partisan identification in the region. Take, for example, the seventeen fences and walls which David Brett notes in Duncan’s Trees from Germany collection19. These not only represent the walls built to separate the Unionist and Nationalist communities, these also mark the boundaries of the newly-constructed, homogenised housing developments, like the one in the photograph below, that keep the already segregated communities further apart:

Fig. 4 From Trees from Germany.

Fig. 4 From Trees from Germany.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

11The maintenance of abstract space affects the way in which identity is constituted in such a context. As a matter of fact, another theme Duncan’s later photographs study deals with the public manifestations of identity changes in the aftermath of the Troubles. In particular, the collection We Were Here (2006) shows how the strategy of visual editing is employed to signify alleged transformation in the collective identity of the respective communities. Although Duncan presents multiple studies of blotted out political and sectarian propaganda, the fact that most of the emblems are only partially concealed strikes a tragicomic tone. In Figure 5, the insignia appear to be non-erasable, no matter how much white paint is applied.

Fig.5 From We were Here.

Fig.5 From We were Here.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

  • 20 See Neil Jarman, Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland, Oxfor (...)

12Irrespective of the changes brought about by the reconciliation process, Duncan’s most recent collection, Bonfires (2008), similarly observes that certain traditions that might sustain conflict actually continue to persist. Duncan documents the long-standing Belfast tradition – and ongoing assertion of Unionist identity – of bonfire-building20. Figure 6 (like the rest of the photographs in the collection) is very different from images most commonly associated with tourism and promotional material designed to vaunt urban development.

Fig. 6 From Bonfires.

Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.

  • 21 John Duncan in G. Lane, op. cit.

13Measuring the bonfires against the variety of settings, Duncan asserts that these structures are actually temporary interventions in the landscape which, “in contrast to the new image [that] the city is trying to project… seem very out of place”21. Therefore, the complexity of Duncan’s approach does not allow people simply to condemn the issue his photographs refer to. Instead, similarly to the rest of Duncan’s oeuvre, Bonfires sets out to inspire people to consider its subject matter in a way that corresponds with its intricacy.

Conclusion

  • 22 E. McCann, op. cit., 168.
  • 23 Colin Graham, “Every Passer-By a Culprit? Archive Fever, Photography and the Peace in Belfa (...)

14The power of John Duncan’s photographs lies in their scrutiny of abstract space and of the processes through which Belfast’s public spaces are commodified. For Duncan, abstract space is an inappropriate concept developers and bureaucrats have promoted in their efforts to marginalize and/or to elide the signs of the city’s contentious geography and history. The view Duncan’s works epitomizes, instead of homogenization of Belfast cityscape, reflects allegations made by contemporary urban sociologists and anthropologists who assert that public space is “always in a process of being shaped, reshaped and challenged by the spatial practices of various groups and individuals whose identities and actions undermine the homogeneity of contemporary cities.22” Belfast in Duncan’s works thus features as a place that resists one-sided or limited definitions. Indeed, Duncan’s photography, as Graham observes, “works continuously to open engagement with Belfast that finds its style and strength through its critique of contemporary Belfast.23” Furthermore, since people very rarely observe the changes in their surroundings with a critical eye, even though they can see them, Duncan’s photographs constitute an important contribution to the process of documenting the development of Belfast.

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Bibliographie

BARTHES Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

BAUDELAIRE Charles, The Painter of Modern Life, New York: Da Capo Press, 1964.

BRANNIGAN John, “Northern Irish Conflict: Provisionals and Pataphysicians,” in James F. ENGLISH (ed.), A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, 141-164.

BRETT David, “The Spaces in Between,” in Trees from Germany, Belfast: Belfast Exposed Photography, 2003, n. p.

DUNCAN John, Be Prepared, 1998.

DUNCAN John, Be Prepared, Edinburgh: Stills, 1998, n. p., exhibition catalogue.

DUNCAN John, Bonfires, 2008.

DUNCAN John, Boom Town, 2002.

DUNCAN John, Boom Town II, ongoing.

DUNCAN John, Fast Friend Les Dawnson, 1995.

DUNCAN John, Sinister and Dexter, 1992.

DUNCAN John, Trees from Germany, 2003.

DUNCAN John, Trees from Germany, Belfast: Belfast Exposed Photography, 2003, n. p., exhibition catalogue.

DUNCAN John, You Are Here, 1996.

DUNCAN John, We Were Here, 2006.

GRAHAM Colin, “Belfast in Photographs,” in Nicholas ALLEN and Aaron KELLY (eds.), The Cities of Belfast, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003, 152-167.

GRAHAM Colin, “Every Passer-By a Culprit? Archive Fever, Photography and the Peace in Belfast,” Third Text, 19.5, 2005.

GRAMSCI Antonio, “State and Civil Society,” in Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, 206-275.

HUGHES Eamonn, “‘Town of Shadows’: Representations of Belfast in Recent Fiction,” Religion & Literature, 28.2/3, 1996.

JARMAN Neil, Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Berg, 1997.

KENNEDY S. B., Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2007.

LANE Guy, “Fire places – John Duncan in Belfast,” <http://www.foto8.com/new/online/blog/594-fire-places-john-duncan-in-belfast>.

LEFEBVRE Henri, The Production of Space, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

McCANN Eugene J., “Race, Protest, and Public Space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the U.S. City,” Antipode 31.2, 1999.

McMULLAN Shauna, “Review: John Duncan, Street Level Gallery, Glasgow, June-July 1996,” Circa 77, 1996.

SCHUBE Inka, “Be Prepared,” in Be Prepared, Edinburgh: Stills, 1998, n. p., exhibition catalogue.

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Notes

1 Historically this euphemism has been used to refer to two periods of sectarian violence, the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and subsequent Civil War (1922-23), and the more recent conflict between the Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist communities of Northern Ireland (1967/8-1998). Unless otherwise stated, this paper will use the “Troubles” only in reference to the latter.

2 Antonio Gramsci, “State and Civil Society” in Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, 276.

3 John Brannigan, “Northern Irish Conflict: Provisionals and Pataphysicians,” in James F. English (ed.), A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, 142.

4 On the discussion of this phenomenon in literature, see for example, Eamonn Hughes, “‘Town of Shadows,’ Representations of Belfast in Recent Fiction,” Religion & Literature 28.2/3, 1996: 141-160.

5 The full list of his works is available on <http://www.johnduncan.info>.

6 John Duncan in Guy Lane, “Fire Places — John Duncan in Belfast,” <http://www.foto8.com/new/online/blog/594-fire-places-john-duncan-in-belfast>, accessed 9 October, 2011.

7 Duncan then focused on this subdiscipline of photography and graduated with a BA in Fine Art Photography from the Glasgow School of Art in 1992.

8 Inka Schube, “Be Prepared” in Be Prepared, Edinburgh: Stills, 1998, n. p., exhibition catalogue.

9 On this subject, see, for example, Shauna McMullan, “Review: John Duncan, Street Level Gallery, Glasgow, June July 1996,” Circa 77, 1996: 24.

10 This disorienting effect is, as Colin Graham has confirmed, Duncan’s deliberate strategy: the photographer expended a great deal of effort to achieve such qualities in the photographs included in the abovementioned collections. (My personal conversation with the critic).

11 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, 51.

12 Such an activity is analogous with that of the flâneur, a person who walks the city in order to experience it. On the discussion of such a meaning of this term, see Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, New York: Da Capo Press, 1964.

13 Eugene McCann, “Race, Protest, and Public Space: Contextualizing Lefebvre in the U.S. City,” Antipode 31.2, 1999: 173. Although McCann’s comment relates to the works by an American cartoonist, Joel Pett, I maintain that they are equally valid in the context of Duncan’s photographs.

14 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, 38.

15 “Very hard for the uninitiated to grasp,” the methods the architects use might result, David Brett claims, in passivity as Belfastians become “the ones to whom something is about to be done” and not instigators of change. See “The Spaces in Between” in Trees from Germany, Belfast: “Belfast Exposed” Photography, 2003, n. p., exhibition catalogue.

16 Such works would include, for example, In Connemara (1925-30), The Road through the Village (1928-30), and Roadside Cottages (1928-32). The list of Henry’s paintings is available in S. B. Kennedy, Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2007.

17 The very few figures that do actually appear in the photographs only feature in relation to the buildings or the other objects that serve as the primary focus.

18 Colin Graham, “Belfast in Photographs,” in Nicholas Allen and Aaron Kelly (eds.), The Cities of Belfast, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003, 166.

19 D. Brett, op. cit, n. p.

20 See Neil Jarman, Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Berg, 1997.

21 John Duncan in G. Lane, op. cit.

22 E. McCann, op. cit., 168.

23 Colin Graham, “Every Passer-By a Culprit? Archive Fever, Photography and the Peace in Belfast,” Third Text 19.5, 2005: 577.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. From Sinister and Dexter.
Crédits Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/6057/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 925k
Titre Fig. 2. From You Are Here.
Crédits Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/6057/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 549k
Titre Fig. 3. From Trees from Germany.
Crédits Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/6057/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 529k
Titre Fig. 4 From Trees from Germany.
Crédits Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/6057/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 683k
Titre Fig.5 From We were Here.
Légende Reproduced by courtesy of the artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/6057/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 593k
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Référence électronique

Michaela Marková, « The Outstaring Eye: Belfast in John Duncan’s photographs », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n° 3 | 2014, mis en ligne le 16 juin 2014, consulté le 22 juin 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/6057 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.6057

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Auteur

Michaela Marková

Trinity College Dublin. Michaela Marková is a graduate of Masaryk University, Brno. In 2008, she was awarded an inter-governmental scholarship and took an M.Phil. degree in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, Dublin. She is the co-editor of Politics of Irish Writing : A Collection of Essays (2010) and Boundary Crossings: New Scholarship in Irish Studies (2012). Since 2006, she has taught at the Irish Studies Workshop, an intensive course on Irish literature and culture organised by Charles University and Palacký University, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland. Formerly a PhD student at the Centre for Irish Studies, Charles University in Prague, she is currently carrying out her research at Trinity College, Dublin.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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