How did you develop an interest in photography?
After finishing Art College specialising in Photography; I went on to do further studies, qualifying as a Press Photographer. I continued on to do Newspaper Journalism. I felt in order to take the best images I could for the papers; I wanted to be able to investigate and write the stories behind the photographs as well.
During the late 1990’s I was one of only a handful in Northern Ireland who could offer the full package, articles and the photographs. This meant I could produce work as a photo journalist, in-house and on a freelance basis for several papers.
So you were trained as a photo journalist?
Like many skilled professions, most of the practical learning process happens on the job. When I started in the 1990’s, photography was still a specialist art form. I was very much involved in the hands on process of creating photographs; in fact the picture process was still carried out in the dark room at that time in many papers.
The Irish News was one of the first papers I trained with; I owe a lot to the paper in relation to my current knowledge as a press photographer. Hugh Russell, who is now Picture Editor, and all the other great ‘togs’ who worked there at the time, and those I have worked with since, were so supportive and inclusive, as were the photographers at The Belfast Telegraph.
At that time, all photographic developing was done in colour to daily deadlines at the Irish News; which meant going out on a job, coming back and developing your films, hanging them up to dry before heading out on another job, then another shoot after that etc – it was such a buzz.
I also gained great press photographic experience training at the Newtownabbey Times which was a weekly paper. At a much slower pace than a daily paper; but the scope and subject matter was so eclectic, from sports to business shoots. I loved working as a photo-journalist; it was a vocation to me, not just a job.
Do you feel that photography as an art form has been devalued?
To a point; I feel the fine arts side of photography has been side-lined in the public main stream and has lost a little momentum now everything has gone digital. In 2018; photography is much more an everyday occurrence of selfies and social media feeds, rather than an artistic pursuit for the majority.
Having said that; I still feel very lucky living in Belfast, because there is a strong interest in photography as an art form here. We have a number of galleries dedicated to the genre; Belfast Exposed and the Artcetera Studio, which used to house the iconic photographic gallery, The Red Barn, for example.
The photographic exhibitions at both these spaces are well worth keeping an eye on each month. Many of our contemporary galleries such as The Engine Room, The Golden Thread, Catalyst and The Fenderesky Gallery, and creatives group spaces such as Queens Street Studios, Catalyst, Pollen Studios and Platform, are all in the city centre and feature fabulous local and international works within their collections.
The MAC is a great space too, in 2013 they hosted 30 years of photography, which was amazing. And we shouldn’t forget the superb annual Belfast Photo Festival; with so much included in its itinerary, it is not just photographic exhibitions. The beauty of all these venues and events is that the workshops and ‘hostings’ therein are all free to view and open to the public – what a great way to spend a lunch time or a Saturday afternoon.
How did you move from photographic journalism to visual arts?
Social and political photography has a very strong history in Belfast and that has had an influence on me, not only as a press photographer, but also throughout my life. So, it was an easy jump for me to bring my core beliefs of wanting to help others (by photographing and reporting on cultural, historical and current news) through my profession as a photo-journalist, when returning to my artistic roots as a visual artist.
I have been touched by many big stories from the past and current news that have affected the lives of thousands of people here in Northern Ireland and therefore wanted to highlight these iconic periods in history through my work.
Just starting out as a visual artist around 4 years ago, my two first solo exhibitions ended up touring Belfast and Co Antrim.
Starting in 2013, “WE SALUTE YOU” was my first collection to go on tour locally. It was an ode to the 56 children who were among over 1,500 people who died during the sinking of the Titanic, one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
Visiting 8 venues including Clifton House (Belfast’s old Poor House), and being hosted in the Bank Vault of The Assembly Rooms, The old Northern Bank; this was also the first artist’s exhibition to be hosted on board the SS Nomadic, ‘Titanic’s Little Sister’ which ferried people from port to the ship prior to her ill-fated maiden voyage.
Running concurrently during this exhibition, I also did a mini tour with LEST WE FORGET… a commemorative exhibition to all those from Northern Ireland who suffered, and the tens of thousands who lost their lives, during the two Great Wars and those that came after.
Like WE SALUTE YOU …; taking into consideration the sensitive subject matter, I did not want to stage this tour in a sterile gallery setting, instead deciding to exhibit in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast war museums and other appropriate settings.
It climaxed with a hosting at Belfast City Hall; where alongside my photographic collection and commemorative show reel; I curated 2 small exhibitions of artefacts kindly on loan from The Royal Ulster Riffles Museum, Belfast, and St Anne’s Cathedral. The first time the two bodies had exhibited together in their 200 year history.
To end the tour, during its month long hosting at Belfast City Hall; I organised a special event, opened by The Lord Mayor of Belfast, to commemorate those who lost their lives from Northern Ireland and Ireland. Cadets from each of the local armed forces attended in full uniform; the Piper’s Lament was played by the young piper down the main staircase of the East Wing Gallery. The Last Post rang out by the marine’s cadet and all 4 cadets read a poem from a young local soldier to his mother back home.
Local actors performed a scene from wonderful WW1 play, Medal In The Drawer by Queen’s University Lecturer and Playwright, Brenda Winter Palmer. With the Rev Campbell Dixon, St Anne’s Cathedral, saying a pray to the fallen and the showing of my pictorial ‘film’ as an ode to the 2 minute silence at the end.
So what are you doing now?.
Currently, I am work on phase II of my 3-year project, PEACE AND RECONCILE. Phase I; Psychedelic, Hitchcock Belfast brought 4 new collections together celebrating the near 20 years of peace we have had since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998.
This work was exhibited at Stormont and bespoke artworks were presented to the then First and Deputy First Ministers of NI, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.