Belfast Exposed

Exhibitions

6th Feb - 30th Mar

Navigating Queer Landscapes

We are delighted to be working with the Queer Artist Forum to bring the work of two of its members to Embrace Style, the incl...

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7th Mar - 23rd Mar

Memorial UnMemorial

Artist Gwen Stevenson embarked on a poignant year-long durational performance, marking the 25th Anniversary of the Good Frida...

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Community

25th Sep - 7th Oct

Young People Behind the Lens

Over the summer, a group of young people from Start 360 explored the cityscape of Belfast. They found new ways to see the...

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21st May - 22nd May

Showing the faces of dementia with Alzheimer’s NI

Ahead of the Alzheimer’s Society Annual Conference 2019 (ASAC19), Belfast Exposed was commissioned by Alzheimer’s NI to w...

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News

The power of photography to heal individuals and communities

Posted on: 28th April 2023

Belfast Exposed is Northern Ireland’s leading photography centre. A non-profit company based in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Founded in 1983, following the intense social unrest and trauma of the 1980-81 Hunger Strikes; community activist Danny Burke brought together a collective of local photographers to initiate an exhibition of photography reflecting Belfast from the inside. The exhibition was called, ‘Belfast Exposed’.

Our mission is to enrich people’s lives through photography by providing high-quality services for the public, businesses, schools and universities, health trusts, the arts, and the community sector.

Based in Belfast City Centre, Belfast Exposed houses four public galleries, exhibiting world-class art that responds to contemporary currents in photography and politics. We also specialise in mental health and well-being, supporting individuals and communities through our unique, ’Viewpoint’ programme.

We operate a diverse, socially engaged public programme and are home to an archive of international significance serving as a catalyst for dialogue, reflection, and storytelling.

Pulitzer Prize winner Cathal McNaughton at Healing Through Photography 2023

With over 40 years of experience delivering an extensive photography training programme to the public, we can enable participants to learn and develop new skills in photography for enjoyment, employability, and career development.

We believe photography is for everyone. Our work celebrates diversity and seeks to address inequalities through art. We’re building new and deeper connections with the many partners we engage with and the communities they represent. In many ways, the approach and aims of the original 1983 exhibitions set the tone for our ethos from that day forward.

While community experience of conflict remains an important focus of our work, the ongoing challenge is to keep this relevant and accessible for a new generation of audiences and photographers. Since moving to the Cathedral Quarter in 2003, Belfast Exposed has engaged with thousands of people every year: photographers, artists, activists, local communities, tourists, students, school children and the general public. Each group has contributed to a substantial portfolio of exhibitions, publications and projects, often informed by questions that resonate with local experiences of representation, identity, history, memory, commemoration, and attachment to place.

Belfast Exposed’s community work follows our socially engaged ethos of addressing exclusion, unemployment and mental health, as well as increasing access – through enabling creativity and critical thinking – and using the camera as a method for driving and documenting change.

Our award-winning work in the field of mental health is unique. It builds confidence and self-esteem to aid in coping with certain conditions, illnesses, and struggles that affect lives. Working annually with health providers and support groups to combat the effects on individuals and communities, we promote photography as a distraction, coping mechanism and catalyst for improving their quality of life. We are recognised as both a leader and innovator in this field.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill, NI Mental Health Champion, at Healing Through Photography 2023

Over 100 photography projects were delivered by Belfast Exposed within communities last year. Our projects provide exciting, enjoyable, and creative experiences that build technical and capacity-building skills that add value to community development and arts-led regeneration. Utilising photography to highlight issues of importance, creating narratives about their community for the community, all whilst sharing these stories with a wider audience through exhibitions and publications.

We also search for new ways to make photography relevant to the everyday lives of people within our communities. As a post-conflict society, Northern Ireland has both a high prevalence of inter-generational trauma and above-average rates of mental health diagnoses. If you live in Northern Ireland, you are 25% more likely to experience mental health concerns than in the rest of the UK. This is a shocking statistic. We are not just in an economic crisis; we are experiencing a severe mental health crisis. As a result of this, we find ourselves working with people with a wide range of mental health and well-being concerns daily.

Art of all kinds has long been known to help us in our daily lives. When we struggle with our mental well-being, the creative arts can help to calm our busy minds, give us an outlet for our emotions, and provide us with a sensation of being able to do something for ourselves – however small.

Photography, specifically, can be incredibly beneficial for our mental health. In a hectic world, it can be hard to see how something we enjoy so much, and perhaps even do for a living, can help with our mental well-being. But picking up a camera could just be the key to feeling that little bit brighter.

Therapeutic photography allows you to use your photos for well-being or personal healing purposes. Photography has several therapeutic benefits linked to our mental health, as it helps us showcase our creativity, allows us to detach from our responsibilities, and improves our mood.

You will have heard the word, ‘mindfulness’, mentioned a lot over the past few years. The practice of consciously partaking in an activity can have similar benefits to meditation, which is what mindfulness is all about. Photography can be an act of mindfulness in itself – when you are behind the camera, you will be in a state of flow which allows you to focus your energy not on your outside concerns, but solely on the moment and task at hand. When you emerge from your photography session, you can feel calmer and more present than when you began, which can help enormously in any difficult situations you may encounter across your day.

When dealing with mental health, photography can have a deep, meaningful impact. We use it as a tool for participants to document their struggles and give them a voice in a safe space that is both relaxing and enjoyable.

Our programmes are based on Viewpoint, a ground-breaking use of therapeutic photography specifically supporting mental health. It focuses primarily on distraction and disruption, engaging individuals and communities of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds with creative photography. This is co-designed with participants to help improve their well-being and resilience through motivation, positive reinforcements as well as creative and engaging photographic activities.

The participants in our photography programmes can also improve communication skills and encourage discussion of issues that would otherwise be hard to broach. Reframing issues and past events using photography, can cause cognitive restructuring and change the way participants think about them. We use exercises to increase concentration, aiding in the reduced symptoms of mental health conditions.

Panel Session at Healing Through Photography 2023

The work focuses on the joy that photography brings and its ability to connect us with others as a catalyst for improving our quality of life. It helps participants develop techniques for building resilience, confidence, and self-esteem and can be a form of stress relief. All these factors contribute to improved mental health. Participants learn and develop the creative, and technical skills needed to take great photographs. The process of capturing images also leads to increased physical and social activity.

Through blended learning, our programmes are accessible, engaging, and interactive. Participants do not require prior experience in photography or a digital camera. They only need a smartphone and a willingness to learn photography and the art of better mental health.

All our programmes incorporate the NHS, ‘five steps to positive well-being’ – Connect, Be Active, Keep Learning, Give and Take Notice.

Like any form of creative art, photography can be a wonderful way to create a personal glimpse into your world that might otherwise remain locked away forever. Taking a photograph can help you process hard times – and make them beautiful.

Deirdre Robb, April 2023