Belfast is a city divided and healing old political and religious wounds is proving slow-going, as this undergraduate student found out while shooting portraits in the city
“We would get chatting and they would just ask ‘Are you Catholic or are you Protestant?’ as blunt as that,” recalls Josh Adam Jones of the youth he met in Belfast when working on his latest project, 99 Peace Walls. It’s a question which has long proved pertinent when crossing from East to West Belfast, and one of the reasons the number of walls in the Northern Irish capital have actually increased instead of having decreased since the 1997 Good Friday agreement.
“I would say ‘I don’t have a religion as such’. One of them said ‘You want to be careful where you say that, because in places around here, that will make people argue with you.’ Basically he was warning me. He was around 11 years old. Having that conversation, it struck me and took me aback to see how heavily ingrained that religious divide is still,” explains Jones.
It’s not the first time Jones has photographed an Irish community – earlier this year, he produced Céad Míle Fáilte (A Hundred Thousand Welcomes), a series documenting the dwindling Irish populations in big English cities such as Birmingham, which came about through an assignment during his second year as a photography student at the University of West England in Bristol.
“For my second project, the brief that we were given was ‘Intersections’,” he explains. “It’s one of those fancy one-word projects that you have to explore. The brief that went up alongside that was to document or focus on a community of people you wouldn’t normally have an association with,” says Jones. Originally drawn to the reggae scene in Bristol, he soon found this to be old ground and opted to start afresh in Birmingham. Belfast seemed like a natural progression, as the photographer was volunteering at this summer’s photo festival in the city.
“It was my first time over in Ireland so all I had were preconceptions really,” he admits. “I was aware of the historical side of things. But I had no knowledge of the reality. It was quite a tense time because this was just before the last elections where the DUP got in. I had gone out with drinks for work colleagues after the festival and even then I would get accosted because I was English. These young girls, 18 or 19 year-olds, would want to come and sit with me and then it would always be so politically heated.”
Although Jones hadn’t gone to Belfast with the explicit intention of getting involved in religious or political issues, he sees that this is a possible interpretation. Across the series, unionist and loyalist colours are present in subtle ways, from clothing to cars, and children play in peace in parks across from divisional walls. But part of the reason he wanted to shoot youngsters was to given them a voice in a narrative that has long preceded them. “It was the younger people in this project that captured me,” says Jones.
“I didn’t want this to be a condescending project in any way. I photograph people in the same way, no matter what their political beliefs or social status. I am trying to give someone a narrative: this is how this person wants to dress, or how they want to act. If they want to go out and drink vodka at 17, that’s their choice.”
The photographs sometimes present a gritty reality, but it’s one telling of recent statistics – one in four children in Northern Ireland grow up beneath the poverty line, and both the wards of North and West Belfast are in the top ten regions in the UK for unemployment. Sometimes Jones would explain his project to people in bars or pubs and would be given advice on areas not to enter for his own safety; venturing there anyway, he found the locals didn’t live up to the dangerous stereotypes.
“The houses and the areas I was in were all low socio-economic values. You could tell these people were in areas that had less money,” he says. “However, I don’t want to use connotations of rough, because that’s not what came across. People might not have a lot, but they will give you what they can. That’s true of so many people in Northern Ireland. They’re a very warm and friendly and welcoming people. They will tell you stories and their lives and give you their time.”
Now entering his third year of university, Jones hopes he will soon have the time to return to Belfast, and travel to other cities across both Northern and the Republic of Ireland. But he says Belfast has stuck with him, for its warm culture but also its slow-healing divisions and the walls that physically manifest them. “It was strange because it was likening it to wartime Berlin,” he says, “with the wall intact separating two peoples who live in the same place.”