The adage goes a picture is worth a thousand words and if that is true then I am looking over at at a cardboard box that contains an unseen, unwritten and unpublished 6 million word photographic document relating to life in West Belfast between 1987 – 2003.
My name is Sean Allen and I’m a holistic therapist and I currently live in Waterford Ireland.
Prior to this in 2003 I was a professional photographer in Belfast, covering Press, Advertising, PR, Studio and also Street and Social Documentary photography.
Last year out of the blue my sister in Belfast sent me down a parcel containing my negatives that I had stored in her garage from when I left Belfast in 2003.
At first I had reservations about going through the negative folders, because they were from my past that I left behind when I was going through depression, and coming face to face with them and that old section of my life that I came to associate with so much personal pain, I was anxious in case the box I was opening turned out to be Pandora’s box.
The majority of the negatives that I have so far scanned have brought me mostly happiness but going through the negatives there is many images where I have captured the aptly named negative side of ‘The Troubles’, relating to my time as a press photographer covering riots, protests and funerals of those killed or murdered.
Although I am aware that those photographs are important for those captured in the photograph and those connected and affected by that little slice of history, those press images is not what really interests me.
The photographs which do interest me, are the ones that brought me the most joy taking, and they’re the ones that I took whilst walking about the streets capturing the kids or the adults going about their day to day business, as it reflects a time when we all just had to knuckle down and make the best of a bad lot so to speak.
Growing up in Belfast the life I had was very similar to most around me at that time. I looked on a lot of what I saw, did and experience as normal, yet my life like most who lived and grew up there was far from normal, in the context that a child or an adult in a civilized society should accept as normal.
I guess to me it was normal to see poverty all around me, and normal to witness bombings and shootings. It was normal to know what it was like to get a kicking from the people with woolly faces, or to consider it normal to get even more kickings by the cops or soldiers who should have been kicking the guys with the woolly faces instead of me or my friends.
Although some of the negatives got water damaged in the garage, thankfully 95% of the 6000+ negatives are still perfect, and I’ve started to scan and upload them regularly to my facebook page Sean Patrick Allen Photography.
Through social media, I have got to chat to so many who were kids in the images and who now have kids of their own which is brilliant in one way but makes me realize that I’m no longer the 20 yr old lad taking the photos any more.
Sadly there is some in the photographs that I have taken, that have since passed over as a result of suicide, which breaks my heart that they never got the breathing space that I did to sort out the stuff that was weighing them down.
I do think the two Governments and the political parties on both sides, along with those armed groups irrespective of who they are, must take some responsibility for dragging their feet on getting our country into some sort of normality that we could concentrate on the real issues that was effecting us, instead of what flag flew overhead as another body got lowered into the earth.
I have interacted with so many of those in my photos and with their family and friends on social media who thanked me for sharing their photos as it captured them in their youth. Speaking with the families of those who have passed over through suicide thanking me for sending them the photos is like giving me a million dollars, but it does hit home that so much pain and suffering came to what was once a happy child in my photo who I later find out passed over to suicide.
My photographs represent only a very small slice of Belfast history but I do believe the photographs that we take as photographers, or even as hobbyists just grabbing a family photo, not only have importance for this present moment in time, they are important for future generations to observe how we lived, irrespective if it was ‘normal’ or not, and I would hate to see a time that street photography becomes restricted or banned like it has already done in other parts of the world.
I have recently begun documenting my journey back into photography via my YouTube channel Rambles with my camera and my Facebook page, and although I have not been back to Belfast in 12 yrs I plan to return later this year for a week long visit to photograph the streets and locals again. There are many who I photographed as young kids and adults between 1987-2002 who have already agreed on Facebook to be photographed again by me when I return.
The past is just that, the past, and we should never dwell on it or live in it and I feel blessed that I got to witness it, live it and record it, and when I taught photography I told my students ‘Capture the present so those in the future can look back at the past’ and I believe that still today.