We had a really good turnout for our Photography and Social Justice event and panel discussion today (also part of the Belfast Photo Festival). The panel, consisting of Chris Gilligan, Laurence McKeown, Melanie Friend, Anthony Haughey and chaired by Pauline Hadaway, were joined by an audience of over 25 people from 12 until after 2.30pm.
The conversation and discussion covered politics, the way prisoners are represented by the media, the physical and emotional issues surrounding detention centers, borders and immigration, representation and agency, amongst others.
Chris made a good point about the general use of the word ‘the public’ (which also indirectly I feel relates to the use of other collective terms like this, for instance ‘(the) community’). He questioned what ‘the public’ want, and discussed the fact that the ‘the public’ is not a collective entity, but that people, ‘the public’ often make conflicting demands, for instance about issues surrounding immigration.
Anthony discussed some of his recent projects, specifically his project Citizen, and spoke in detail about the capacity of photography to mobilise change. He stated that it may be naive to think that photographers can change the world but that actions such as initiating projects like Citizen can do two things: Document and exhibit a situation, and allow a viewer/audience to become activated. The change this can bring about may not be immediate but may happen over time, allowing questions to be posed and issues to be addresses. Chris stated that art itself cannot bring about social change but can run alongside social change and play an active role. This received a great response from members of the audience during the Q&A, allowing them to give their account of projects that they had been involved in that they felt had made a real, palpable difference.
Anthony also posed the question of how to mobilise the rarified gallery space. Pauline discussed this and also highlighted that by organising events such as today’s Photography and Social Justice discussion, and future events such as this, at which points are raised, discussed and questioned that ‘through disagreement we can get clarification’ and that Belfast Exposed is a space where different views can come together.
The Q&A that followed was fascinating and at times difficult, as some very direct and sometimes critical and challenging questions were asked. A former detention centre worker questioned Melanie Friend on her portrayal of these centers as places were visitors and their loved ones couldn’t have intimate contact, stating that this was enforced to prevent illegal substances and dangerous weapons from changing hands and putting staff at risk. He asked her how she imagined they should look instead.
Towards the end of the discussion, an elderly gentleman had come in to the gallery to view the current exhibition, Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography. He sat down next to me and told me he did not know the discussion was on, but that he found it very refreshing to hear that the speakers, as well as the audience, were able to express quite opposing views in a neutral space in which these opinions were listened to, considered and discussed. He asked when the next event was and that he would certainly come back. For me, hearing that we have at least one new engaged follower (and there were more people in the audience who had never been to the gallery before), was exciting and I look forward to seeing him, and perhaps hearing about his point of view, at the next one.