Sean Hillen, Jesus Appears in Newry (Security Forces Investigate), 1992  ©

Sean Hillen

It is impossible to look back at Belfast’s recent past without mention of the Troubles, a territorial conflict between predominantly Protestant unionists/loyalists and primarily Catholic republicans/nationalists that lasted from 1968–1998.

Over 3,600 people lost their lives over this 30-year period, with tens of thousands more injured and countless left traumatised. This catastrophic conflict left an indelible mark on the nation’s consciousness and visual landscape, and photography became the medium of choice for many who wished to document and reflect on what was happening around them. 

Three such photographers were Sean Hillen, Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie, all of whom made work relating to the Troubles and are now recognised as some of the country’s most accomplished photographers. Their work on the theme of conflict provides a vital study of this tumultuous period in the country’s history, and charts the development of a powerful tradition of documentary photography in the region that is internationally respected today.

Sean Hillen

Sean Hillen was born near Belfast, in the small town of Newry, before moving to London to study at the London College of Printing and the Slade School of Fine Art. On his return to Northern Ireland he began taking documentary photographs, mostly in black and white, depicting daily life during the time of the Troubles. From these photographs, taken between 1983–1993, Hillen went on to create collages using a ‘"traditional” scalpel and glue’ method to address the conflict in new and experimental ways.

The photograph at the top of this page, Jesus Appears in Newry (Security Forces Investigate) from 1992, combines an SAS advertisement with an image of Christ and shots of garages near to where Hillen grew up, bringing Northern Ireland’s religious heritage into dialogue with the violence taking place at the time.

Hillen moved to Dublin in 1993, stating a ‘desire to get away from the “war”, and make more overtly healing works, […] pictures full of Love instead of Anxiety’. His resulting works, the ‘Irelantis’ collages, created between 1994–2005, use found objects such as magazine clippings to make humorous yet poignant commentaries on politics and popular culture from around the world. Hillen has since created further collage series and worked on public commissions such as the Omagh Bomb Memorial, which commemorates a deadly 1998 car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland.

This year, Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast put on an exhibition of the artist’s work to date, titled Sean Hillen – 100 Works. In the video* below, watch Northern Vision Television’s Mo McDevitt talk to Sean Hillen about his work at the opening of the exhibition.

*Courtesy Northern Visions/NVTV

Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright was born in Belfast in 1965, and moved to England to study photography at West Surrey College of Art and Design. While there, he was taught by Paul Graham, the English photographer who would become Seawright’s mentor and who inspired him to begin making work that dealt with the Troubles.

His series Sectarian Murder comprised photographs taken at the site of sectarian attacks in Belfast, with text beneath each image from newspaper articles reporting on the incidents. His approach was one of allusion rather than straightforward documentary, and subsequent series Police Force and Fires negotiate the subtleties of life during the different phases of the Troubles.

Seawright’s 2007 series Conflicting Account uses found visual fragments and texts from Catholic and Protestant schools across Northern Ireland as metaphors for the layering of history. Take a look at Seawright’s Friday 25th May 1973 work below, taken from Sectarian Murders, along with a video in which the artist delves further into his work and views on the Troubles.

Like Hillen, he has also moved beyond this theme and addressed issues faced by other societies, visiting places affected by conflict beyond Northern Ireland. In Things Left Unsaid, Seawright’s photography investigates ‘the theatre of war through the internal landscape of the US television news studio’, focusing on the illusory nature of these spaces, where information is selectively transformed into news.

In The List, Seawright contemplates the issue of residence restrictions for convicted sex offenders in the United States via a series of photographs depicting fractured, uninhabited spaces.

Take a look at the photographs from this series via the link below.

Friday 25th May 1973, from the series Sectarian Murder  ©

Paul Seawright

Northern Ireland. South Armagh. Golf 40. South East view. 2006. Courtesy of Belfast Exposed ©

Donovan Wylie 

Donovan Wylie

Born in Belfast in 1971, Donovan Wylie left school at 16 to pursue a career in photography. He travelled Ireland for three months taking photographs of what he saw, which culminated in a book entitled 32 Counties in 1989. In the video above, watch Wylie in conversation with Paul Seawright, as they discuss their shared influences and personal relationship with the Troubles.

In 1992 Wylie was taken on by Magnum, one of the world’s leading photographic agencies. Since joining, he has continued to make work that negotiates the political and literal landscape of Northern Ireland during and after the Troubles. His work includes the highly acclaimed book The Maze (2004), for which Wylie documented the Maze prison, situated ten miles outside Belfast and a major site of conflict during the Troubles that was made infamous through the 1981 hunger strikes.

Similarly British Watchtowers, published in 2006, comprises contemporary aerial photographs of the watchtowers across the border region of South Armagh just weeks before they were taken down as part of the ongoing peace process.

By revisiting these crucial sites of Northern Ireland’s recent past, Wylie places them in their contemporary context and encourages the viewer to consider their history from a certain distance. Below, an image from the British Watchtowers series shows how Wylie used the aerial perspective to replicate the view from the watchtowers themselves.

Sean Hillen, Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie all share unbreakable ties to the Troubles; 30 years of violence had a profound effect on them and their homeland, and their work has been fundamental to the cultural negotiations that have occurred since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which finally brought peace to the affected regions.

The work of these three photographers together traces a line through important developments in photography in Northern Ireland as the nation continues to mediate between the ruptures of the past and visions of hope for the future.

See also

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