Photography, Community and Memory in the Belfast Exposed Collection

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: BIAD Visual Communication

Abstract

Founded in 1983 as a community based photography project, Belfast Exposed has a near thirty year history of working with photographers to produce and exhibit socially engaged photography, and is the city's only dedicated gallery of contemporary photography. The archival collection that has grown over this period now contains in the region of half a million photographs, covering a range of subject matter, from parades and civil disturbances to the everyday life of Belfast communities. It is this collection that provides the central focus of the project. Although in recent years BX has commissioned a small number of artistic engagements with the collection, and a relatively small number of the images have been digitised and made available online, the collection has yet to be the subject of any sustained research.

The project therefore aims to do a number of things. First, to understand how the collection has developed in a changing social, cultural and political context; the history of the collection is known but not well documented. Second, to explore the contemporary cultural value of the collection for communities and audiences in Belfast and beyond. Third, to situate the work in the context of changing understandings and uses of photography, specifically in its relation to community memory and history. Fourth, to inform the organisation's strategies for the presentation and display of images from the historical collection for contemporary audiences. The project will open up a reflective space around the collection in which to explore and debate a range of issues concerning the meaning of the photographic record, its relationship to post-conflict Belfast, the responsibility of the organisation as a guardian of this visual history and its agency as producer of visions of the city.

The project will draw on theoretical literature on photography, memory and history, and academic studies of visual documentation and display in post-conflict settings elsewhere in the world, in order to contextualise the particular case of this collection and inform its interpretation. The collaboration between the academic and non-academic partners has a number of benefits. For the academic partner, the project provides an opportunity to extend a programme of research on photography. The student will have unique access to the collection and the organisation, around which they will shape a doctoral project. They will be able to bring theory and ideas derived from academic study, as they relate to photographic practice and display, into a close relationship with the challenges of practice. For the non-academic partner, the project provides the opportunity to have someone work with them on the collection; to contextualise the material through reference to comparative work elsewhere, and bring forward new ideas around its cultural significance and how this might be realised for contemporary audiences. It is anticipated that there will be a long term impact on the organisation's strategy for the collection, in addition to academic outputs.

Planned Impact

The project is deliberately structured to provide benefits for the non-academic partner, in addition to the conventional academic outputs expected of a doctoral studentship. We also believe the project has potential for impact beyond a single organisation.

Direct benefits for the non-academic partner will include:

The presence of a research student dedicated to working with the organisation's photographic archive collection. The organisation is conscious of the cultural significance of the collection, but lacks the time and resources to carry out research. The studentship fills this gap and will therefore enable the organisation to see this key resource contextualised and better exploited than otherwise possible.

Enhanced capacity to explore the many and complex issues involved in the selection, interpretation and display of photographs from the collection and the engagement with contemporary audiences. The ability of the student to undertake comparative and theoretical study, drawing on national and international examples and bringing this back to staff at the organisation, will inform the theory and practice of display.

Enhanced capacity to collect and consider responses from the different users of the collection and audiences of exhibition displays. One of the aims of the project is to develop an understanding of the cultural significance of the collection for contemporary Belfast audiences and communities, providing both practical and academic benefits.

The involvement of the student alongside curatorial teams in the programming of collection based exhibitions, projects and events will provide an extra dimension. We anticipate that the student's research will help to shape exhibition and display strategies, forms of community and educational engagement, as well as stimulating new thinking about how the work in the collection can be used and shown.

It is expected that the studentship will have a long term impact on the organisation's future policy for the collection. The student being based at the organisation, particularly during the middle phase of the study, will enable multiple informal opportunities for exchange. We also envisage more formal points where the student will be able to present ideas and findings to the organisation staff. The student will act as a catalyst for debate around the collection and its significance within the organisation.

Wider benefits that stem from the project include:

Impact on audiences and communities in Belfast. The non-academic partner is Belfast's only contemporary photography gallery and therefore a key part of the cultural landscape of the city. Furthermore, the photographic collection covers a significant period in the city's recent history. The project will therefore have a more or less direct impact on future visitors to exhibitions and displays of photographs from the collection. The collection should not be considered an unproblematic cultural 'good'; the archive bears the scars of the period it represents and returning to these images in the present demands careful consideration. Nevertheless, it is argued here that a better understanding of the ways in which photographs mediate a society's relationship to its past is a socially and culturally valuable outcome.

Impact on other photography and cultural organisations. The project has the potential to inform museum and gallery practices elsewhere, especially where such organisations face similar issues of dealing with difficult images of the past. Our plans for dissemination recognise the need to communicate the findings to practitioners through conferences and journals, as well as through locally organised seminars and workshops, the BX events programme and website. More broadly, the project will be able to share best practice within the university's knowledge exchange programme in the arts, which inclu

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