Upon arriving from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Rochester, ten year old Adele jumped off a bus and into our hearts.
The Irish Children’s Program sponsors visits for children who need a break from the violence that can erupt between Protestants and Catholics during the summer months in Belfast. They stay with American host families and hopefully learn that it is possible for the two religions to live side by side in peace.
Thanks to this ecumenical program, Adele became our Irish daughter. And then just like that, twenty years flashed before us and we were sitting in St. Matthew's chapel in East Belfast watching her, now a beautiful young woman, walk down the aisle about to be married. The wedding was followed by two days of celebration!
Adele stayed in our home nearly every summer during her childhood; she grew up with my kids Nick and Stephanie. Even after graduating from school she often returned to us as a young adult. The bond formed between Adele and my family became strong and extended into a bond between her family in Northern Ireland and ours in America.
Upon arriving in Belfast for Adele's wedding, my family and I were welcomed into their small community, known as the Short Strand, as part of her family. The Strand, as it’s commonly called, is a Catholic enclave of about three thousand residents and is approximately ten by ten city blocks of row houses. The district is the only Catholic community in East Belfast and has historically been a flash point for the violence known as the Troubles. Surrounded by peace walls, the children of the Short Strand still do not wander out of their district to play with children on the other side of the walls.
When Adele came to Rochester as a child, the Troubles were still a prominent part of life for the citizens and children of Belfast, but since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, things have steadily improved between Protestants and Catholics. Paramilitary organizations such as the Real IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) are still represented in the segregated neighborhoods by the many murals which often feature violent undertones as their subject matter. Having said that, my family and I did not feel a sense of danger walking through the districts during the day. There is also no sense of tension in downtown Belfast as Protestants and Catholics walk, shop and dine freely among one another.
Belfast is a beautiful city and now seems to have strong economic activity and tourism. It's citizens, both Protestant and Catholic, should be proud of what is becoming of their city on the River Lagan.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS
I used three different styles of photography while in Belfast – portraiture, fine art and photo journalism. Taking a break from my usual sports photography was refreshing although the next time I go, I must find a hurling match to photograph!
For the photographs featuring the murals I used high dynamic range (HDR) photography. The murals are present in the everyday lives of the people of Belfast. They go about their daily business in the shadows of sometimes violent scenes depicted in them. I think/hope, HDR photography communicated the surreal feeling you get while viewing these beautiful works of art in the streets of the segregated districts.
I’ve studied portraiture for many years. I’ve made a business of portraits, shooting my fair share of weddings, senior and family portraits. I have always loved making portraits and hope to immerse myself in it again someday. Adele had hired a wedding photographer and believe me, I was happy to be there as just a guest. I didn’t want to get in the way of her photographer but I couldn’t resist making a couple of wedding portraits of Adele so I did steal her away for a few minutes.
In 2001 I visited Belfast for the first time to work on a personal photography project entitled The Children of Belfast. Much of the project depicted life in what was and sometimes still is, the tough streets of the Short Strand from a child’s point of view using a photo journalistic approach. This work was exhibited at the High Falls Fine Art Gallery in downtown Rochester with the opening reception being held on St. Patrick’s Day 2002. I returned to the Short Strand this time with two of my grandchildren, Nicholas and Lucas. I was delighted to find the Short Strand a safer place and documenting my own grandchildren in the Strand just blew my mind.
I welcome questions and comments.
During the height of the Troubles, Beechmount Avenue in west Belfast was a flash point. Throughout the years, locals have renamed it RPG Avenue because rocket propelled grenade launchers were used to repel the English Army on this street.