Perfect abnormality: Paul Graham’s ‘Troubled Land’

Unionist Poster, County Antrim, 1985

I made many visits to the North throughout 1984, ’85, and ’86. It is not a big place, but has more than its share of old towns and cities, of rural beauty and locations of historic triumphs or infamous acts, depending on where your allegiances fall. My British accent and lack of press credentials meant it was not particularly easy or safe for me in the tougher locations, as I couldn’t adequately explain why I was there — not a journalist, not employed by anyone, not a ‘local’, not Irish, carrying cameras, and wandering around randomly — behind/towards/away, peering over and doubling back — all of this could easily be misconstrued, and was hard for me to justify to enquiring locals, or the police or army. It also made it hard to socialise in those dark days, to visit pubs and bars, in the way that an American or French credentialed press photographer could, without arousing some suspicion. 

Turf Lodge, Belfast, 1984

The landscape did not ask questions though, and so to learn more, I took to traveling around the North to places and locations I knew of and wanted to see for myself: Armagh, Derry, Omagh, Newry, Ballymena, and places infamous from news reports, like the Bogside or Warrenpoint. My naivety of the politics was embarrassing — why dates like 1690 meant everything to some, little to others; how INLA differed from IRA, UVF from UDA, RHC from RUC; what the significance was of gable end murals that proclaimed struggles and dates and portraits, often lost on me, and maybe on the opposing community. The H-block hunger strikes had run their awful course by then, and Margaret Thatcher was unmoved. The RUC police drove around in armoured Land Rovers with bulletproof windows and carried machine guns, quite different to the unarmed ‘bobbies’ of the mainland. Confusingly, black ‘London’ taxis were everywhere, acting as a local bus service, mostly to Republican areas, to ferry people in and out of the city centre, for shopping or work. All this makes normal life sound impossible, but everyone still went to the pub, ate out, saw movies, danced, visited the seaside, enjoyed cream teas, and breakfasted on an ‘Ulster fry’. Life carried on in a perfectly abnormal normality.

 ‘Eternity Where?’, Ballymoney – Ballymena Road, County Antrim, 1985

British troops were there in force at this time. Helicopters flew constantly, armoured personnel carriers (‘Pigs’) and military Land Rovers were regular sights, as were army patrols in most neighbourhoods. Small patrols in camouflage gear would sweep through at random, their military training defining an erratic stop/go as paired tag teams covered and advanced through potentially hostile areas. One morning, on that first 1984 visit, I was walking in Belfast’s Andersonstown, and found myself stopped by such a patrol, who radioed in my name as I had a camera around my neck — a bad sign as photographs from events staged to embarrass the British military were useful for the Republican cause. Once cleared, I was told not to take any pictures as they left, but of course I did take one, without looking, the camera just dangling from my neck. It turned out to be the only image from the entire trip that mattered, a gateway into how the work might be.

 Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984

All the other photographs I had taken in some forlorn attempt to get things moving — the gable murals, the destroyed housing, the adolescent rioting — weakly echoed what I saw in the newspapers. This one image did not. It looked across a roundabout, at some detached houses and the green hills beyond. There were people walking to shops and driving cars — simply going about their day, but then there was a soldier in full camouflage, running across the roundabout with his army rifle, and hidden off to the right, more soldiers moving down the road, one forward, one backward. The roundabout itself has large stones pulled up, maybe for throwing, maybe not, the streetlights are missing, with political posters placed very high to prevent tampering. That railing I overlooked has ‘IRA’ and ‘PIRA’ graffiti on it. This one photograph held a salient lesson — it reintegrated the conflict into the landscape, rather than separating it. It was subtle and concealed its political nature: it was a conflict photograph masquerading as a landscape photograph.

As this realisation settled, I felt that maybe there was a way to reflect on this — this disputed land was after all at the heart of things — and to examine both landscape and conflict together. Consequently, I travelled repeatedly to the North, sometimes flying, sometimes driving all day, taking the ferry from North Wales, to arrive in Belfast late at night. Some visits were productive, others less so, but I started to grow more familiar with the land, its history, its codifications and differing histories. I began to make friends in bars and clubs in Belfast, and eventually, after three years, felt it was time to stop setting my camera at infinity, finish the landscape work, and move closer. I made a book dummy and was fortunate enough to get just enough support to self-publish it in 1986. Of course, I’d change some things now if I could — a judicious edit here or there would be welcome — but feel it best to leave things as they are, highs and lows. I am too close to it all now, too many ghosts haunt my memory.

Excerpt from ‘To See’ by Paul Graham, from Troubled Land (2022)

Linen hardcover with tipped-in image
32.2 x 24.3 cm, 80 pages

ISBN 978-1-913620-60-8
May 2022
€55 £45 $65 

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