Without fear or favour: 30 years of Troubled Images
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
28 November 2016
The latest incarnation of the Troubled Images project — the launch of a free downloadable iBook — was cause for a reunion of sorts at the Linen Hall Library for the original team that compiled and published its original CD-ROM 15 years ago.
Julie Andrews, the library’s Director, cited the original Troubled Images exhibition that occurred 30 years ago, organised in 1986 by Robert Bell, the librarian of the Northern Ireland Political Collection at the time.
The second such exhibition was held in 2001, and Andrews listed those involved with that project: Kris Brown, Monica Cash, Ita Connolly, Ciaran Crossey, Gordon Gillespie, John Gray, Allan Leonard, Yvonne Murphy, and Andy White.
She also mentioned other contributors, such as Belinda Loftus and Patrick Speight, who conducted interviews, as well as Alison Gault (graphic designer) and Franklyn Weber and Henry Smolarek (CD-ROM designers)
Andrews reminded us of the next milestone project of the political collection, Divided Society. A team made up of Gavin Carville, Rachel Brady, Alistair Gordon, Kate Keane, and Catherine Daly will work on this until January 2018.
Monica Cash explained how while we might look back at the medium of CD-ROMs with nostalgia, at the time in 2001 it was cutting-edge technology, and that the ambition to digitise over 3,500 posters and artefacts this way was ground breaking.
The accompanying Troubled Images exhibition book was the first major publication to examine the role of posters in the Northern Ireland conflict, with its 70 images reflecting all shades of political opinion, “and clearly encapsulate the hopes, hatred and passions of the time,” Cash said.
In 2008, the library, in association with Colourpoint Books, published a Troubled Images educational toolkit, which is the basis for the new Troubled Images iBook.
This resource is aimed at key stage 3 pupils (aged 11-14), providing a post-conflict generation with a non-biased narrative of key events in Northern Ireland’s recent past, through the medium of posters:
“It includes questions and activities aimed at stimulating enquiry and promoting a greater understanding of our shared history,” explained Cash.
She described the library’s neutrality as an ‘engaged neutrality’, working with all those individuals and organisations who have generously donated material to the political collection for nearly 50 years.
Cash also thanked the library’s workers and their commitment, knowledge and passion:
“In the past, many have shimmed up lampposts or climbed the barricades to get posters for the archive … something that health and safety practices definitely wouldn’t allow today!” she told us.
Cash finished with special thanks to Gordon Gillespie, who has worked on Troubled Images in its various manifestations over a number of years:
“His insight, experience, and enthusiasm never fails to astound, and I look forward to working with him again when no doubt Troubled Images will re-emerge in another guise.”
He explained some benefits of a digital publication, such as viewing and working from handheld devices such as iPads, and that the resource can be updated over-the-air, without need of reprinting a whole volume.
The layout is consistent with the previous softcover version, here with an interactive chronology of key events by decade, a glossary of terms and acronyms, and a biography of key individuals.
There are also pop-up style links to suggested activities, for both individual readers and team work.
It is pleasing to be able to pinch-and-zoom any desired images, to closely inspect details.
The potential for interaction, both tactile and guided coursework, is obvious to see:
Gordon Gillespie gave a review of the 30-year history of Troubled Images, with his presentation, “Writing on the Wall”.
He noted that the 2001 Troubled Images exhibition coincidentally used many of the same images as the previous show in 1986.
Gillespie credited Yvonne Murphy, librarian of the Northern Ireland Political Collection from 1995-2009, with recognising that many of the collection’s items were ephemeral and needed to be digitised for long-term purposes.
The objectives of the 2001 exhibition were to:
- Catalogue the posters
- Digitise the material
- Create a CD-ROM
- Select items for an exhibition
- Write an exhibition catalogue
Gillespie reviewed some ‘team favourites’ from the 2001 team.
Yvonne Murphy’s was one of the children’s public safety character, Tufty, warning children to stay out of empty buildings: “They could be very dangerous”; this was an obvious adaptation of the more direct message from the British Army: “They may be booby-trapped”:
Allan Leonard’s was a poster made to honour the visit of US President, Bill Clinton, in November 1995. There are clear nods to the venue of Northern Ireland, with the lit candle of hope in red and white, and the six-pointed (instead of five-pointed) stars in the flag:
Gordon Gillespie’s favourite image is a romanticised, illustrated portrait of Joe McCann, drawn by Jim Fitzpatrick, who is known for his iconic image of Che Guevara:
Finally, Kris Brown and Ciaran Crossey were both fascinated by a poster by the INLA, which paired the silhouette of a rifle alongside a spanner and letters of the IRSP, making a claim of the joined efforts of a socialist international revolution:
Gillespie moved onto the global dimension of posters, as a means of communicating prompt responses.
For example, he argued that Shepard Fariey’s “Hope” poster of Barack Obama, used effectively in the 2008 US Presidential election, is the most influential political poster of the 21st century so far:
Gillespie explained how every picture in a poster tells a story, such as a local one highlighting the issue of equal rights in marriage, or an anarchist one that draws parallels between terrorist attacks in Paris with the plight of international refugees:
He said that posters are still used to advertise political rallies, but now they have website addresses in the footers.
So how effective are posters? Gillespie presented Gerry Carroll’s as an example of issues over image, with the candidate’s ordinary headshot poster, but with the use of the colour red pointing to his left-wing politics:
Meanwhile, Gillespie found the EU referendum posters dull and mundane, with an exception of SDLP councillor Declan Boyle’s “Know which side your bread is buttered on”:
Gillespie noted the crop of posters put up to commemorate centenary events, such as the 1916 Easter Rising and remembrance of the Somme (First World War). He pointed out one Easter Rising poster that featured Elizabeth and Eleanor (Nell) Corr; their brothers George and Charles Corr both fought in the British Army in France in 1916:
And Gillespie showed some posters evoking controversy:
- A £5 sticker on a poster of Peter Robinson in the 2010 Westminster election (referring to a controversial property sale)
- “PSNI: People Should Not Inform” posters and stickers appearing after comments by PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, Will Kerr (June 2016)
- UDA recruitment poster seen in Sion Mills, Co. Fermanagh (July 2016); same poster was counter-postered with above “PSNI” as well as IRPWA images
So why are posters still used today? According to Gillespie:
- A familiar format, quickly and easily recognisable
- Can be used for political advertising and noting commemorations
- To mark territory
- Part of an event or ritual
- People have come to expect to see them (have become part of our culture)
- Helps reinforce group identity, by depicting something considered to be important
During the Q&A discussion, former Linen Hall Librarian, John Gray, described how the Troubled Images international exhibition was made all the more relevant when it launched in Boston on the day that the US commenced military action in Afghanistan.
He remarked that in times of conflict, academics and archivists ask themselves whether they will collect material from all parties, without fear of favour:
“We’ve attempted, I think with some success, to do this in the Linen Hall Library,” concluded Gray.
I am a peace journalist, because I believe in transforming conflict-driven narratives. I am editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. I am a co-founder and editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service, which works improve civic discourse. I also support the conflict resolution work of the Forum for Cities in Transition in Belfast.