Thirty years ago, in the period following the intense social and psychological trauma of the 1980-1981 Hunger Strikes, teacher, trade unionist and community activist Danny Burke brought together a small team of local photographers to initiate an exhibition of amateur photography reflecting the experience of Belfast from the inside. The exhibition was called 'Belfast Exposed', and initially comprised over 200 photographs and slides, articulating the life of the city from predominately working class perspectives. Opening on 17 October 1983 at the People's Theatre, Conway Mill, on the nationalist side of the ‘peace wall’, the exhibition attracted interest from all over the city.
Attempting to forge solidarities across Belfast's sectarian divide, Belfast Exposed, as the group came to be known, represented the work of photographers from a range of political backgrounds, while recruiting a 'cross community' steering committee and, wherever possible, bringing exhibitions to venues in neutral and loyalist areas of the city.
Opening the exhibition at the Bank of Ireland Gallery in Baggot Street, Dublin in 1984, Seamus Heaney remarked on the "powerful, democratic feel running through these photographs", which documented a common experience of unemployment, poor housing and economic deprivation, at once intensified by the effects of conflict and sectarian division and alleviated by the gritty humour of working class Belfast life.
In the years that followed, new photographic practices began to emerge in Northern Ireland, providing critical tools for reimagining the future in a rapidly changing region. While community experience of conflict remained an important focus of our work, the challenge was to make this work more relevant and accessible for a new generation of audiences and photographers. Since moving to the city’s Cathedral Quarter in 2003, Belfast Exposed has engaged with many thousands of people: photographers, artists, activists, local communities, visitors to the city, students, school children and the public at large. Each has contributed to a substantial portfolio of exhibitions, publications and projects, often informed by questions that resonate with local experience: representation, identity, history, memory, commemoration and attachment to place.
Embarking on a new cycle of change, Belfast Exposed is currently one of nine UK museums and galleries selected to participate in Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum initiative. Building on extensive networks of communities and artists, we hope to discover new ways of working based on common values, which join up the rich diversity of our interests. Staying true to our founding mission, we continue to value photography as a way of challenging clichéd and reductive representation, so that people might better understand and be understood in the world.