Research notes – Sectarian Murders

The following notes are made in connection with Paul Seawright work “Sectarian Murders”. The images seen were all found in his website (1)

Seawright series depict, in the style of “late photography” the locations where sectarian crimes in Northern Ireland took place in the 1970s. All of the pictures are in full colour and are accompanied by a caption that describes the events without mentioning whether the victims or perpetrators were Catholics or Protestant. The texts were taken from newspaper articles reporting the crimes.

The style of the pictures varies and  not all of them include human figures. Some of the images include elements that are somehow related to the crimes, thus providing a direct link to the narrative for the viewer (for example, the picture captioned “Thursday 14th December 1972” (1) captures a motorcycle passing by, with the accompanying text explaining that the murderer in this case was travelling in the pillion of a motorcycle). In other pictures there are no clear clues, and this sometimes coincides with lack of clarity (from the text caption) as to how the victims were killed, as if Seawright was trying to calibrate his two descriptive systems (text and images) to convey the same degree of information precision. Some of the images show the lens very close to the foreground of the image, which gives a sense of presence to the viewer, as if he or she were immerse in the location. The negative side of this is the connotations of voyeurism and sense of stalking that this gives in certain images, in particular those captioned “Saturday 9th of June 1973” (1) and “Sunday 9th of July 1972” (1), both of which seem to have been taken at relative low angles and from a semi-concealed location.

The pictures are quite attractive to look at and, with all of them being in full, bright and sometimes quite vivid, colours, they are hard to ignore. Flash seems to have been used in nearly all pictures to enhance foreground brightness and increase the lushness of the colours. The pictures are all calm, peaceful and none of them would be particularly conductive of the events depicted by the captions. Seawright decision not to include any direct political background in the text has the effect of cleansing the series further and avoids any potential backlash or recrimination in terms of bias (could the reaction to the series be different, for instance, if he would have maintained references to political affiliations of victims and murderers? Would somebody have objected to the possibility that some of the worst crimes or a greater number of them was committed by a particular faction?) and adds to the ambiguity of the project.

Looking at the video referenced in the study guide (link)(2), where Seawright tries to explain why some people criticise his work for “not being explicit”, he makes a distinction between what he does and what he refers to as “journalism” or “editorial pictures”. The difference, according to him, is that in the latter meaning has to be given as directly and explicitly as possible because the attention span of the viewer is relatively shorter (in the sense that, when reading a picture in a magazine, for example, they would only look at such picture for a few seconds) . There is essentially, very little room for interpretation by the viewer, which is presented with all the necessary clues to reach the conclusion that the picture editor wants to convey. In contrast, his pictures, need to have some ambiguity, so that, in conjunction with the context, “gives up its meaning slowly” and allow the viewer to come up with their own conclusions (which may or may not coincide with what the photographer wanted to convey). Seawright makes a very brief reference to his pictures being visually attractive in the first place, before being digestible by the viewer, and while he does not talk about this in detail, on the evidence of “Sectarian Murders”, it is clear that the colour palette of the pictures is very attractive and that it is the form and aesthetic elements of the picture that first draw the viewer’s attention. The idea of slowly giving meaning, as suggested by his video, does work in the case of “Sectarian Murder” to a certain extent, particularly after one reads the captions accompanying the pictures and can survey in detail the elements that have been included in the frame, but this has its limits: Seawright talks about a “fine line” in photographic work between being too explicit and being too ambiguous, with the latter being rendered “meaningless”. I tend to think that Seawright work in “Sectarian Murder” takes away perhaps too much information in an effort to maintain political neutrality that ultimately detracts from a subject that requires a political treatment.

The pictures in “Sectarian Murders” have a documentary feel to them, in the sense that they purport to report crime scenes, but Seawright implicitly defines his work as art in the video (he does not mention it directly, but it can be inferred from his comparison with other things he did not necessarily consider as artistic, like editorial pictures). He does not talk explicitly about documentary photography in connection with his work, and I do not believe he consider his work to be in the same vein as that. The pictures may be done in an “aftermath” style, but they are too stylish and detached from the events (both in timing, depicting events that happened over a decade before the pictures were taken, but also, in some case, on the lack of visual clues) to be considered as a documentary work. Furthermore, they do not reveal or expose anything in connection with the events or the wider Northern Ireland conflict. This, nonetheless, should not impact on the value of Seawright’s work and its ability to convey meaning or elicit a response from the viewer, be it political or something else. In the video, he seems to suggest that this is important for him, as an artist, to be able to produce work that could be meaningful. I happen to think that in the case of “Sectarian Murders”, the meaning is more at risk of becoming lost on the back of too much political caution, rather than on the classification of the images as “art” instead of documentaries.

But is the use of a documentary style by certain artist deceitful or dangerous? I think it would all depend on how much by way of context is shared with the viewer. If the viewer is led to believe that something entirely fabricated is documenting an event or situation that did not exist in the first place, and this elicits a political response from the viewer, then in as much as that response is directly related to the deceit the photographer would have to share responsibility for his or her actions. In the clear cases where the use of documentary photography is just a stylistic decision (as I think is the case in “Sectarian Murders”), then there should be sufficient ambiguity in what is presented for the viewer to come to their own conclusions without having been swayed in one direction or the other by the artist’s deceit. I think this is what Seawright was referring to when he mentioned in the video that “the construction of meaning” is done “…by the person looking at the artwork”, and that a good piece of art should allow room for that to happen, rather than force meaning upon the viewer.

____________

(1) Paul Seawright. 2017. Sectarian Murder — Paul Seawright. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/. [Accessed 07 July 2017].

(2) Vimeo. 2017. Catalyst: Paul Seawright on Vimeo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://vimeo.com/76940827. [Accessed 10 July 2017].

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