At the beginning of the year 1984, a young, early-career Paul Graham was given a commission. In lieu of George Orwell’s seminal book titled 1984, London’s The Photographer’s Gallery asked six photographers to explore the state of the United Kingdom in that same year that Orwell’s dystopian novel was set.
“It was a rather silly thing,” Graham says. “Everyone’s moved beyond, forgotten about that, but of course, it was the Orwellian prophecy – where are we now? Are we in Orwellian times?”
Within a window of just a few short months, from the start of the year until March to submit his photographs, Graham had to think and work quickly. “I just thought that I couldn’t do something about what the state of the UK was then without visiting Northern Ireland, where we were basically in a sectarian war,” he says. “So I went over.”
Originally published in 1987, the recently reissued Troubled Land is a collection of photographs from his travels around Belfast, Londonderry, and the surrounding areas. The photos were taken as he drove around the country in a small rental car during The Troubles – a decades-long, violent conflict between mostly Catholic republicans fighting for separation from Great Britain, and Protestant unionists.
While the conflict has been well documented and well photographed, Graham chose to take a different approach, taking landscape shots, exploring the relationship and effects of war on the land of Northern Ireland.
“I’m not a newspaper photographer, I had no Associated Press accreditation, I wasn’t a member of Magnum, and I was British – so anyone on the Republican side was suspicious of me as some sort of agent of the imperialists,” Graham explains of his process. “I was looking for a way to understand the conflict for myself, so the landscape was good in that way.”
Shot in coloured film, the photographs showcase the beauty of Northern Ireland’s landcape, with rolling green hills, coastlines, and picturesque towns, while war and its effects on society lurk in the background (and often the foreground).
These signs of conflict range from the subtle – a Union Jack flag perched at the top of a lonely tree in a field; graffiti spelling out “BEWARE” in blood red paint – to the more overt, with one photo showing two military personnel carrying out a stop and search on a vehicle by the roadside.
For those acquainted with a more peaceful existence on the other side of the Irish Sea, the divisions, violence and cultural differences came somewhat as a shock. One evening, Graham caught up with an ex-student who was born in Northern Ireland in a bar, who had recently moved back with his wife from England. While sharing a beer, the ex-student recounted how one time while a friend of theirs came to visit their home, his wife decided to pop to the local shop for a pint of milk, so she left a note on the door saying: “Seamus, back in five minutes.”
“And he told her off, because writing Seamus on it gave away their friend was Catholic, and inside – and that was a silly mistake to make,” he continues. “And it was a shock to me that you couldn’t even leave an innocent note without it betraying an allegiance and endangering someone.”
Yet despite this, the photographs also showcase the resilience of Northern Irish society and its people, living in what Graham describes as “abnormal normality”.
“Everyone naively assumes that people living in a conflict zone are hunkered down, timidly scared to go out only for the bare essentials – but that wasn’t the case,” he says. “People went off to the seaside, ice cream vans came around to the rougher areas, and kids lined up for their 99 Cadburys Flakes. Everyone went to church, they had their cream teas, people went to nightclubs and hooked up – it’s kind of like life has to carry on doesn’t it?”
Troubled Land is out now on MACK Books.
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