It’s an arresting image. The foreground is packed full of sinister figures wearing rubber Ronald Reagan masks while in the background, a serious-looking crowd stares down the camera lens, and as a record of a time and place in Ireland, it says more than an essay ever could.
he year was 1984 and Reagan was on a state visit to Ireland, finding his Irish roots and celebrating what he called “the Irish-American tradition”. But at the same time, a vocal minority wanted to make their voice heard. In particular, they were objecting to US foreign policy and the treatment of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Entitled ‘No Welcome for the President’, the picture by Rose Comiskey is just one that will feature in an upcoming exhibition entitled PROTEST! that looks to document photography, activism and social change in Ireland. The exhibition features pictures from the 1960s to the present day, crossing political lines and seeking to highlight the role photography has played in recording the struggle for equality, diversity and inclusion in Ireland.
The issues covered in the exhibition are many and varied, from civil rights, political struggles and conflict to women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, institutional abuse, social and economic issues and Travellers’ rights through to international movements for change such as anti-war, climate change, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
With images from the 1960s up to today, the exhibition shows how society has changed, how technology has changed and how what it means to be a photographer, or even a citizen journalist, has changed as well.
“Back in the 1960s, to be a photojournalist and to produce an iconic image, you needed a lot. You needed expensive equipment and training, a good eye, press credentials, and on top of that you needed to be in the right place at the right time to get the shot,” says Trish Lambe, one of the curators of the PROTEST! exhibition at the Gallery of Photography Ireland.
“But now we’re in the age of what some people call the synthetic image. Everyone has a camera in their pocket and the shift towards digital has been profound. The way we all consume and understand images has changed, and a photograph can be taken and shared in real time. Contemporary photojournalists are often part of the same story they are documenting.”
But we’re also in an age of false information, and photography is a subjective medium. Lambe cautions us to be skeptical when faced with an arresting image.
“Remember, we can’t always believe what we see. People think photographs are an eyewitness to history but actually they’ve always been an unreliable witness. So in this exhibition, it’s important to ask who is saying what, who’s taking the picture and why? Context is really important,” she says.
One interesting thing about the historic photographs featured in this exhibition is that the people who took them usually had no idea they were documenting significant moments of social change. That realisation only came later.
“When you’re taking photographs in the moment, you don’t think that you’re recording history. Photographs only become historical later. In the moment, you’re recording something that is happening right now, usually with the goal of publicising those events,” says Peter McKee, a photographer whose work documenting conflict in Northern Ireland features in the exhibition.
“But it’s so important to record these moments, because time goes on and people forget. My son when he was younger said to me, ‘Daddy, what was the holocaust?’ and I was stunned. Every person of my generation knows exactly what that was, and it shows that our historical memory is really only one generation deep.
“That’s why it’s important to document important moments. Otherwise we are doomed to repeat history and not learn from it.”
For Rose Comiskey, whose work largely focuses on the feminist and women’s rights movements, a further reason to celebrate images from the past of hard-won victories is that sometimes victories don’t stay won forever.
“The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was passed by referendum in 1983 and then after that, the pro-life movement sought to reinforce it by doing as much as they could to deprive Irish women of information about where to get abortions abroad. For example, they wanted to prevent magazines published in England that carried advertisements for clinics from being sold in Ireland,” she says.
“That 1983 referendum was passed by a two-thirds majority and then it was repealed by a two-thirds majority in 2018, so there was a big change in Irish society in the 35 years between the two events. But there is still a segment of society that would like to roll that back, and it’s important that the people who care about this issue remember what was involved in repealing this amendment and don’t let later generations forget.”
For photographer Eoin Campbell, whose work on the Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019 is featured in the exhibition, being in the right place at the right time to document pivotal moments is crucial, but so is having the skills to maximise that opportunity.
“The collective abilities of a few people got us to the front pages of the Irish Independent and other newspapers in Ireland multiple times across that whole year. That success demonstrated to all of the activists involved in the effort that, ‘Wow, we are really achieving something,’ and that in turn was valuable for making people realise that their efforts were working,” he says.
Campbell teaches mobile and multimedia journalism in Dublin City University as well as being a passionate environmentalist himself. So in his work, he was both activist and journalist.
“We proved that adage that a powerful image or piece of video can do more than a press release ever can. You develop the skill of making those over years of work, and it was a team effort, but we were able to generate images, select the best ones and send them on to picture desks and see them appear in print and online.”
Tessy Ehiguese studied photography in college but doesn’t describe herself as a documentary photographer. Nevertheless when she attended a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Dublin in 2020, she felt moved to bring her camera, and the results highlight a moment in time that was highly significant for black Irish people, as well as all others who seek equality in Irish society.
“I’d seen BLM protests online and mostly taking place in the US, but to see it in Dublin was quite interesting. It showed that people were keen to see more inclusion here too and to hear black people’s voices,” she says.
“US and Irish society are very different, and the protests that were held here were mostly in solidarity with those happening in the US, but they also sought to highlight that there are issues here as well. They don’t exist to the same degree as in the US, but they are there. In particular, Direct Provision is something that I think is degrading to those caught up in it.”
‘PROTEST! Photography, Activism and Social Change in Ireland’ takes place at the Gallery of Photography Ireland in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin, from April 21 to June 11. Visit galleryofphotography.ie for more information
https://www.independent.ie/life/capturing-six-decades-of-protest-in-ireland-its-important-to-document-these-moments-otherwise-were-doomed-to-repeat-history-41556854.html Capturing six decades of protest in Ireland: ‘It’s important to document these moments. Otherwise we’re doomed to repeat history’