Since the 1980s, Willie Doherty has established an international reputation in photography and video. His latest exhibition ‘WHERE’ currently showing at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, is part of the ‘100 Years Forward’ programme by National Museums NI, to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.
rranged across four galleries, ‘WHERE’ offers an overview of Doherty’s career and explores his interest in borders — real and imagined — a subject that has dominated his work for more than four decades.
Now living in Co Donegal, Doherty has been twice nominated for the Turner Prize, in 1994 and 2003.
Q This is the largest exhibition that you have ever staged in Ireland. Does the work on show span your whole career?
A ‘WHERE’ is kind of a survey exhibition of work that I’ve made from the mid-1980s to the present day, that in some way is connected to the idea of borders and how we understand borders and how we live with them.
The earliest work that I made was specifically about the border between north and south here, and also between Derry, where I grew up, and Donegal where I now live.
The work also touches on a wider experience or understanding of borders. In the last number of years, with various kinds of international crises and the movement of people across Europe and elsewhere, there has been a real focus on migration, and how we understand borders.
And Brexit has highlighted the Irish border once again, as we’re currently living with the so-called Northern Irish protocol.
The exhibition includes 11 video works and about 24 photographic works, which range from early, predominantly black and white images with text laid over, to a body of work that dates from 1997/98, through to 2020.
The majority of the video work has been made since 2007 — in the post-peace process era, and that work reflects on how we deal with living through the aftermath of the Troubles.
The pieces are often about the relationship between place and memory. And the uneasy relationship between unresolved events from the past and how those are remembered, both on an individual basis and in a larger kind of collective sense.
Q Do you plan what you do, or is it spontaneous? What way do you conceive a piece of work and its subject?
A It’s not always the same. When I started making the earliest pieces, I was a young artist trying to find my own language, my own form of expression.
One of the things that frustrated me at that time was that a lot of the best-known images of Northern Ireland in relation to the Troubles, were images often made by visiting photojournalists, that highlighted the conflict on the streets.
You had these photographs of soldiers on the streets, barbed wire, occasionally children — a series of well-worn images that everybody associated with Northern Ireland. I wanted to try and do something that was more from the perspective of someone who lives here all the time, not someone who comes on a short visit to do a job.
Of course, that’s a job that’s important and needs to be done, but I wanted my work to be from the perspective of someone who lives here all the time.
My photographs generally, didn’t have any of those sensational, or dramatic moments. They were much more low-key, they were more about the fact that, you know, perhaps, nothing happens for days or weeks on end. There’s a kind of monotony in them.
And also, I decided that I would concentrate more on the landscape, rather than the people.
So, I set about photographing how the place looks and through this combination of image and text, I referenced the conflict and what it felt like to be living in that way. The work allowed me to express things from my perspective.
And that has continued — that desire to understand the events that are happening around me through what I do and working with images and words over text, then evolved to using the spoken word.
My videos often have voiceovers and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of Northern Ireland’s best-known actors including, Kenneth Branagh Stephen Rea and Adrian Dunbar.
Q You were born and bred in Derry. When did your interest in art and photography begin? Were there any other artists in the family?
A No there were no other artists in my family. As a teenager, I was really into music.
I think a lot of people of my generation found a way to deal with the Troubles by pushing our energy in that direction.
My interest in art was really piqued in 1976/77. Punk was happening and the energy of the music and the Undertones and all of that scene got me into artists like Andy Warhol and the kind of whole pop art thing, which for me became synonymous with the energy of the music. The possibility of making art, and being part of that scene, really excited me.
After school, I went to Belfast College of Art, where I initially studied fine art and sculpture. I was making things that were temporary, or time-based in some way and started taking pictures to document the things I was making, because they might have only lasted for a few hours or a few days.
I ended up with a lot of photographs of things that I’d been working with and that I had made, and I began to think about using photography more as a primary medium, rather than just for recording something.
It was through that and thinking about what I could do with photography that the work evolved to start using language as well.
Some of my earliest use of language with photographs, was kind of diaristic, a self-portrait in some way and things then evolved from that.
Q You have said in the past that witnessing the events of Bloody Sunday had a profound effect on you. Was that also a catalyst for your artistic direction?
A Like many people, the initial reporting of Bloody Sunday and the initial inquiry was at odds with what I had witnessed.
I was 12 years old at the time, and it made me question the way in which stories get told and the way news stories are constructed and reported.
Up until that point, I’d been brought up to believe that what you heard on television news, or on the radio, or what you read in the newspapers, were connected to the truth in some way — that there was a kind of degree of objectivity in the news reporting.
Bloody Sunday challenged that for me as a young boy in that what I read subsequently in newspapers and what I heard on the radio and saw on television, didn’t correspond with what I knew had happened.
So, I suppose, in that sense, it had an impact on my relationship with photography, with language and with the news media.
At that time, people were probably a little more naive in terms of how they believed photography had a place in the world.
Photographers were placed on a pedestal as being these kinds of reliable witnesses who were there on our behalf to record things.
Now people are much more cynical and savvy about how photographs are manipulated, and everybody has got a camera on their phone, so our whole experience of producing images, consuming images and interrogating and questioning images, is much more sophisticated now than it ever was.
That really is at the core of all of the work that I’ve made — that kind of relationship with photography and with image making and with language and how those components can be both put together and how they can be manipulated and how they can be used to tell stories that are both perhaps true or not true.
My own work is essentially fiction. It’s made in real places, and it’s not constructed in some way, but our way of understanding of it is constructed because I put it together.
The process of storytelling and working in the gap between fact and fiction is, I suppose where my work lies.
Q Becoming a successful artist is a hard nut to crack. How did you get your break? Did you ever have to work at anything else?
A My first exhibition of photographic work was in the Oliver Dowling Gallery in Dublin, which has since closed.
I met Oliver in 1985, about four or five years after I had left art college, and I spoke about what I was doing and showed him a few of the images about Derry I was working on at the time. He was interested enough in the potential of what I was doing to offer me an exhibition in February 1986.
That was the first exhibition of my work and one of those first pieces is included in the current Ulster Museum exhibition. I think you always needed a little bit of luck, and it was just lucky for me that I met the right person who was interested in what I was doing.
I was also lucky that the Dublin exhibition received a good bit of critical attention and I got more offers to show my work.
It just snowballed from there and I started showing my work in the UK and Europe. In 1990, I did my first exhibition in New York.
Of course, I’ve done lots of other things. I also did some teaching in various art schools, including Ulster University, where I was Professor of Video Art and where I’m still a visiting professor, which is great because it’s always good to meet new up and coming students and artists, and to be part of a discussion with them and see their work develop.
Q What’s a typical day in the life of a twice Turner Prize nominated photographer and artist?
A Up until the last year and a half, I travelled a lot because I show my work all over the place. I mostly produce my work here in Ireland, but over the last number of years I’ve worked in other places and in 2017, I made some work in the United States along the US Mexico border.
A couple of those photographs are included in the exhibition.
When I’m home with my wife Angela, I have a very quiet life working in the studio.
The three kids are all grown up and have flown the nest, but when they were younger, I tried not to be away for more than a week at a time. I don’t like to be constantly travelling — particularly the experience of travelling, going through airports, all the time.
Now that Covid restrictions are easing, I’ll be out and about with the camera — I think I’m going to go back and make some work in Derry again. I haven’t done that in a while.
I would also really like to go back to the States to try and make some more work looking at the US/Mexico border.
This is the kind of job or situation where you never know where the next interesting project might crop up, which is always exciting.
The Ulster Museum exhibition was actually curated in conjunction with Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, in Modena, Italy and I worked with the curator by Zoom to install it, but it feels to me like that exhibition didn’t happen because I didn’t get to see it.
That exhibition was curtailed because of restrictions and caused the Northern Ireland exhibition to be delayed from March to June.
Q.Thanks to hi-spec camera phones, everyone considers themselves a photographer these days. Do you worry about the future of photography as an art form?
Not really. Photography is a very democratic art. Anybody can lift a camera and as you say, everybody has a phone.
Everybody has got their family albums, so people have always used photography and embraced it.
And people think about photography in different ways. It can do lots of different jobs for different people.
I think, generally people use photography as they kind of need it and some become more interested and start to think about it as something they can use to express themselves in some way — which is great. The more the better.
Willie Doherty’s WHERE is at the Ulster Museum, Belfast until Sunday, September 12, 2021. www.nmni.com