Open space photography at the Linen Hall Library

Open space photography at the Linen Hall Library
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Slant
31 May 2017

Gaining inspiration from viewing the archive postcard collection at the Linen Hall Library, a group of participants in a community photography workshop facilitated by Belfast Exposed set out to document their views of sharing and respecting open space in the city.

A selection of the resulting images was put on display at the Linen Hall Library, viewable in its cafe and performance area.

The library’s chief executive, Julie Andrews, told me how this all came about, with a previous creative writing workshop for 50 children across the community, which made the library accessible to a wider audience.

On the back of that workshop’s success — which was partly funded through the Government’s community relations programme, Together: Building a United Community — Andrews sought to contemplate more activities:

“There are so many new and emerging communities in Belfast. Why don’t we look at how they see Belfast?”

Working in partnership with Mervyn Smyth at Belfast Exposed and its photography in the community programme, participants perused the library’s postcard archives, which got them talking about their arrivals here and what that felt like:

“They looked at how their street in Belfast looked 50 years ago … and where they live now, and that’s how they find a sense of place,” Andrews explained.

The result was an increased curiosity of others’ cultures and wanting to learn more.

For example, as Tamzin from Protestant-populated Hillhall remarked, this community photography project gave her confidence to gain an appreciation of the Islamic community.

Ali, from the Syrian Family Refugees, said that taking pictures of Belfast gave him a new insight into his new home city.

Many of the images shown will be familiar to Belfast city residents who have lived here for some time. Yet it can be the perspective of a newcomer to refresh the scenes as well as introduce us to what we might pass by without a second glance.

A floodlit Belfast city hall awaits the next day’s pedestrian traffic; shoppers look up to a beacon of consumerism at Victoria Square Mall; a dimly lit alleyway provides shortcuts for the knowledgeable; a public park is an oasis of nature and joy.

Meanwhile, it is people who make a place — a friendly neighbour, a woman with groceries, young men with refreshments, teenagers showing off to each other.

And there is the Belfast of the imagination. Like hand-coloured postcards of the past, some participants applied an updated technique with Photoshop to create a vibrant Titanic Building and a saturated starry main street.

The feedback has been positive: “People want to buy [the framed images]. They have been a talking point in the cafe. And the communities really enjoyed the process and want to do something again,” Andrews said.

Fortunately, the Linen Hall Library plans to reshow the images this autumn, with some workshops that will explore identity.

It is clear that this investment in outreach work is showing rewards — community engagement brings the library’s rich assets to life.

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