An interview with Founder and Photographer Sean McKernan
By Jennifer Dempsey
How was Belfast Exposed started?
Thirty years ago, in the period following the intense social and psychological trauma of the 1980 - 1981 Hunger Strikes, I started Belfast Exposed with my friend and teacher Danny Burke. We shared an interest in Photography and agreed to start the project which would encourage local people to comment on life in Belfast from a local/community and personal perspective. This was in response to the representation of Belfast by the main stream media restrictions which was set against a background politically imposed state censorship.
We invited local photographers to participate in an exhibition of amateur photography that would reflect the experience of Belfast from the inside. A call for work inviting “any amateur photographer who wishes to explore any aspects of the city or its people.”
Our approach was that if any member of the public felt offended in any way by the content of work displayed we would offer them free use of a camera and provide them training. This would give all community members the opportunity to have their say within the exhibition.
We have always attempted to forge solidarity’s across Belfast’s sectarian divide, Belfast Exposed, and strive to represent the work of photographers from a range of political backgrounds, while recruiting a ‘cross community’ steering committee and, where possible, bringing exhibitions to venues in neutral and in some cases to loyalist areas of the city
Belfast Exposed has evolved from a one-time exhibition it become Ireland’s principal photography project. It continues to provide hundreds of community groups to use the medium of photography to explore a range of issues including community relations, cultural identity, sectarianism, housing and unemployment. Today the project employs 6 fulltime staff based in our Belfast City Center premises, with 2 galleries, a studio, darkroom, bookshop, digital studio. It also houses a unique archive of over 500,000 images depicting the history of Belfast over the past 30 years.
How did you get started in photography?
On a personal level, my interest in photography stemmed primarily from my mother who armed me with her wee 110 Kodak camera and later a compact 35mm camera. She always insisted to enforce family photographs upon us six kids during birthdays, communions, Christmas and Easter. Much to her dismay, I would then regularly use this camera to document riots, demonstrations, funerals that took place on the Falls Rd where we lived. In school I helped set up a film club with access to a darkroom and camera and continued with my interest in documentary photography.
When did you realize the importance of self-representation through photography?
It was during the funeral of IRA Hunger Striker Bobby Sands in 1981. I was standing in Miltown cemetery, camera in hand, and I remember not recognizing one person from my own community among the 100 plus international media and press covering this historical event. This resonated with me as to why no member of my local community was part of this press/media contingency. This event ultimately planted the seed for me to confront and challenge the importance of community representation through the medium of photography. Two years later, in 1983 we had the 1st Belfast Exposed Exhibition.
As a community photographer have you come up against resistance from police, military or government?
Many of our photographers, myself included, have been regularly arrested, physically and verbally assaulted by the police and British Army, often with film and equipment being damaged and confiscated. We have been threatened & vilified by members of political/paramilitary organizations whilst running community photography projects in some contentious districts. During the mid-1980s our exhibition was banned from all Belfast City Council property and our funding denied by the same Council at the behest of a Unionist controlled council.
How have the Belfast Exposed exhibitions been received over the years?
Over the past 30 years, Belfast Exposed exhibitions have toured extensively throughout Ireland, Britain, Europe, America and Australia.
The first exhibition was called ‘Belfast Exposed’ and comprised over 500 photographs and slides, articulating the diverse life of the city from predominately working class perspectives. The exhibition opened on 17 October 1983 at the Peoples Theatre, Conway Mill, off the Falls Road, and attracted visitors from all over the city, including Shankill and East Belfast. In fact the Shankill Bulletin gave the exhibition an excellent review, as did the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph.
At the opening the exhibition at the Bank of Ireland Gallery in Baggot Street, Dublin in 1984, Seamus Heaney called the exhibition a “marvelous moment” and remarked on the “powerful, democratic feel running through these photographs” which documented a cross-community experience of unemployment, poor housing and economic deprivation, intensified by the effects of conflict and sectarian division and alleviated by the gritty humor of working class
A 30th anniversary exhibition of Belfast Exposed” will be held at the Salida Community Center from July 15-August 15. Opening reception July 17, 6-8pm. Sean McKernan will give a free slide show presentation/lecture at the Book Haven in Salida on Monday July 19 at 6pm. For more information call 719 530-1494.