By Dominique Herman
Northern Irish photojournalist Oistin Mac Bride believes that The Half King is the right venue to display his photographs of the Troubles because “it’s a lived-in gallery space that’s just crying out to have stark, straightforward images.”
In fact, the Irish-American pub and restaurant in Chelsea always intended to be a type of journalistic salon complete with literary readings and changing photojournalism displays.
The exhibit coincides with the U.S. book launch of MacBride’s “Family, Friends and Neighbours, An Irish Photobiography,” published by Beyond the Pale Publications, which in its initial run of 3,000 copies in Ireland sold out in six weeks.
Although there are 200 images in the book, just nine were selected to appear
in the restaurant by MacBride and Jerome O’Connor, a County Cork native and
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co-owner of The Half King who has known the photographer for about 10 years. Since the book also features accompanying text by MacBride, he needed to showcase photographs that were “strong visuals” that could be
interpreted without explanation: Gerry Adams as a pallbearer at IRA volunteer Thomas Beagley’s funeral; a soldier pointing an assault rifle at a little girl. He also wanted a representative feel of the entire collection and a variety of images that weren’t too explicit to be showcased in a public setting.
MacBride testifies to highlighting human-rights abuses through these photos and the emotional impact of facial expressions twisted in sadness is undeniable. The exhibit is unreservedly nationalistic, though, and demonstrates uniformly the effects of the brutality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, whose dominating presence – all-gray military vehicles and police in riot gear — is felt in almost every shot, either in plain view or on the periphery of the image.
MacBride makes no attempt to depict the larger political landscape, but a
narrower, personal one that he, his friends and neighbors have lived for the last 20 years. His photos illustrate a highly personal documentation of what he witnessed, and MacBride has managed to deliver an undiluted, if one-dimensional, perspective. Indeed, its value is that it is not objective.
“Our story is as important as everybody else’s,” he said at the book-launch party last week. “It deserves to be told by
the experts and we are the experts.”
Commenting on one photo of a Drumcree Church Parade on Garvaghy Road in
Portadown, MacBride, who divides his time between Derry and New York, is as verbally scathing of the loyalist contingent as his photos are critical of them.
“I have no hesitation in making a correlation between the Orangemen and the Ku Klux Klan,” he said.
With both his father and brother having been shot dead by loyalist police, and his own experiences of being arrested and beaten, how could one expect or even desire objectivity? The funerals and military presence in his photographs are but a mirror to his own life. “My photo album, my diary,” he said.
The one thematic aspect of the exhibit that is conspicuously absent, however, is that of paramilitary violence that has plagued both sides of the conflict. While heartfelt and honest, the cause-and-effect nature of the photos weighs exclusively on the effects of RUC violence against Republicans. However, an rounded documentation was never MacBride’s intention, and his confidence in his perspective only adds to the strength
of his images.
“My life is revolutionary,” he said. “My politics are revolutionary, and I hope the work reflects that. I hope it provokes a