Capturing 40 years of Belfast Exposed

Ahead of the gallery’s 40 year anniversary Sophie Clarke spoke to CEO Deirdre Robb and community engagement manager Mervyn Smyth about the evolution of Belfast Exposed

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Deirdre Robb and Mervyn Smyth from Belfast Exposed. The trailblazing gallery is celebrating 40 years of charting the rich tapestry of life across the city (Colm Lenaghan)

OVER the last 40 years Belfast Exposed has truly encapsulated what it means for a picture to be worth a thousand words.

In 1983, following the intense social unrest and trauma of the 1980-81 Hunger Strikes, teacher, trade unionist and community activist Danny Burke formed a collective of local photographers to produce an exhibition of photography reflecting Belfast from the inside.

The exhibition was called Belfast Exposed.

Consisting of over 200 photographs and slides, the work documented daily life in the city from a predominantly working-class perspective.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Belfast Exposed is celebrating 40 years of charting all aspects of life in the city (Colm Lenaghan)

“It was cross community before the term was even invented,” says the gallery’s chief executive Deirdre Robb of the titular exhibition.

“It was Protestant and Catholic photographers, professionals and amateurs, all presenting their work and it received such a phenomenal response.”

Originally opening at Conway Mill, the exhibition was later moved to the Bank of Ireland Gallery in Dublin where Seamus Heaney remarked on the “powerful, democratic feel running through these photographs”.

As a result of the exhibition’s success, Belfast Exposed has become a thriving visual arts organisation leading the way in challenging, shaping and bringing meaning to society.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Deirdre Robb, Belfast Exposed CEO (Colm Lenaghan)

“I try to make the exhibitions as useful as possible and blend them together slightly,” Deirdre explains.

The gallery currently boasts four exhibitions ranging from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Cathal McNaughton to journalist Stuart Bailie’s exhibition Visions of Hooley, celebrating Belfast’s ‘Godfather of Punk’ Terri Hooley.

“They’re all very different but they have some kind of relationship,” she says. “All the artists are so committed to peace building and the power of collaboration.”

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Belfast Exposed is holding an exhibition to celebrate its 40th anniversary (Colm Lenaghan)

In addition to exhibiting impactful and thought-provoking work, Belfast Exposed is committed to showcasing the power of photography and finding ways to make it relevant to the everyday lives of people within the community. This is significant because of Northern Ireland’s high prevalence of inter-generational trauma as well as above average rates of mental health diagnoses. Belfast Exposed has run a series of photography programmes designed to help people improve their mental health and wellbeing.

The driving force behind this effort is community engagement manager, Mervyn Smyth, who recently celebrated 30 years with the gallery.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Mervyn Smyth looks through the Belfast Exposed archive (Colm Lenaghan)

“I covered the Troubles before I started working here,” he says.

“And I thought there was bound to be more I could be doing rather than just taking pictures of people.

“With the community engagement sector within Belfast Exposed you actually found you were going into the communities where loss had happened, where there were ongoing social and political issues.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
The rich tapestry of Belfast life has been catalogued for 40 years at Belfast Exposed (Colm Lenaghan)

“So, I wondered what would happen if I took some images from the archive – nothing hard hitting, just a few images to open discussion. And I found that people were telling you more about themselves because of these images.

“And through doing that I found myself accidentally doing therapeutic photography, even though I didn’t know that was the term,” he confesses.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Deirdre Robb and Mervyn Smyth (Colm Lenaghan)

“But you were helping healing through photography and using it as a way for people to express themselves. So, I thought, if we can do that through our community groups then we’re on to something here and we can give people a voice.”

Over his three decades working in the industry, Mervyn has witnessed the healing powers of photography both here at home as well as further afield. Most notably whilst he was a photographer in residence with the Honfleur gallery in Anacostia, Washington DC.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Life through a lens... the Belfast Exposed 40th anniversary exhibition (Colm Lenaghan)

“In 2007 I was selected to go and live in Anacostia which is an area that is 97% black African American and 3% Hispanic – what was said to me was that white people walking through there are usually lost.”

“It’s three miles from the White House but so deprived it was unbelievable, but their art gallery was wonderful.

“They had all these programmes on for young people to get them off the streets.”

Mervyn made multiple trips back and forth to Anacostia, helping people in the community connect with art and photography.

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Belfast Exposed is celebrating its 40th anniversary (Colm Lenaghan)

“On my third visit I received Arts Council funding,” he recalls.

“And I was doing a project with an organisation called Life Pieces to Masterpieces which helps young people who have lost their parents or who have maybe been to jail or got involved with drugs.

“So, we gave them all a disposable camera and they all went home and took some pictures.

“Then I went to CVS, which is a pharmacy out there, to get them developed and when they found out I was working with Life Pieces to Masterpieces they gave me all the pictures and everything for free, because we were doing something.

“That experience was a big thing for me.”

Belfast Exposed celebrate their 40th anniversary.
An exhibition on display at Belfast Exposed (Colm Lenaghan)

Both Mervyn and Deirdre agree that the impact of therapeutic photography is “transforming.”

“It’s part of our DNA now,” Deirdre adds.

“It’s integrated into everything we do here at the gallery and because of that we’ve been able to develop specific mental health programmes and train our staff on wellbeing.

“Mervyn and our engagement officer Sam (Robb) have just completed their postgrads in therapeutic photography, so we now know what we’re doing, as well as why,” she laughs.

To celebrate 40 years of exhibitions, archiving and community engagement, the gallery will host a special 40th anniversary gala in City Hall on June 6.

40th Anniversary Gala
Belfast Exposed is holding a 40th Anniversary Gala in the City Hall next month

“I looked at what had been done to celebrate the 30th anniversary,” Deirdre explains.

“I wanted to do something that was completely different but equally special, something that people could get involved with – so we decided on a gala.

“We applied to the City Hall, told them what we wanted to do and why, and they’ve been very supportive.”

The gala will also be an opportunity to showcase other areas of Belfast’s art scene with NI Opera and Belfast Ballet getting involved with the celebrations whilst drag queen Lady Portia Di’ Monte will host the event.

Belfast Exposed
The Belfast Exposed gallery on Donegall Street in the city centre

“They’re so honoured and excited to be a part of it,” adds Deirdre.

“Having that backdrop and being able to celebrate not just ourselves but the arts around us is just amazing.”

When asked what the secret is to 40 successful years in the art industry Deirdre answers: “The magic ingredient is passion. I was talking to one of the founding members of Belfast Exposed, Sean McKernan, and when he was sitting talking there was real passion in what he was saying – that’s been consistent throughout.”

Belfast Exposed will host it’s 40th Anniversary Gala Dinner at City Hall on June 6 at 6:30pm. There will be a drinks reception in the venue’s rotunda before enjoying a meal and entertainment in the Great Room. Tickets are £100 per person and only available by emailing gala@belfastexposed.org or by calling 02890230965. For more information visit www.belfastexposed.org .