For thirty blood-soaked years, one overriding narrative framed the photography of Northern Ireland: the Troubles. It was a felicitous term that allowed people on both sides of the armed conflict—and those who thought there was a position somewhere in the middle—to refer to the same violent hostilities without revealing their particular perspective.
The grim reality behind the euphemism was a war between the British state, sometimes in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, and an Irish Republican Army (IRA) demanding a united Ireland. Of the thousands that died, more were civilians than combatants. Massive social inequalities underlay the conflict that subsumed them and the bad news is that these disparities remain and continue to blight the lives of marginalised communities.
Toby Binder’s photographs show the truth of words by journalist Lyra McKee (tragically killed at the scene of rioting last year) about people like herself who were “destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace.” But, she added: “The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”
Binder, a German photographer, started work on the everyday life of young people in British working-class towns in 2004, initially in Scotland and then in England and also Northern Ireland. His first trip to Belfast was in 2006 but it was the Brexit referendum that galvanized an interest in returning. “Here the decision for or against Brexit ran tight along the sectarian lines. And there were different majorities of over 80% in a very confined space,” he explains.
“The majority in Catholic-nationalist neighbourhoods voted to stay in the EU, most people in Protestant-loyalist neighbourhoods voted for Brexit. This referendum result made very clear how different the vision of Northern Ireland’s future is in these two camps and how deep the resentment of the past lies.” The result of his fresh interest are the images in Wee Muckers - Youth of Belfast, taken from different neighbourhoods of Belfast. Some of these communities are anxious to preserve an identity that is Protestant and part of the UK; others are nationalist and Catholic, looking to a united Ireland.
Binder’s pictures—‘wee’ is an informal adjective for small or little while ‘muckers’ is a colloquial word for friends and companions—are in the recognizable tradition of street photography as a ‘theatre of life’. They are though quite different from, say, Helen Levitt’s photographs of children on the sidewalks of poor neighbourhoods in New York. Levitt’s youngsters own the streets and their spontaneous playfulness kindle amusement but those in Binder’s pictures occupy contested territory and artless joy looks to be in short supply. There is one photograph of a girl running along the ground with unrehearsed glee but the heavy presence of police vehicles isolates her vitality. In a harsh, urban landscape, she becomes almost quixotic.
The names of some of Belfast’s neighbourhoods act as shorthand for sectarian loyalties that divide the city. The girl running past the police vehicle is in Carrick Hill, a nationalist area, and in another photo, taken from behind a police line in the same area, a young boy on a bicycle stands as if questioning the restriction on his right to roam. In Belfast, confrontations with uniformed authority begin in childhood.
In staunchly loyalist areas, like Sandy Row and Shankill (a murderous loyalist gang was known as the Shankill Butchers), pro-British insignia is photographed on walls. Although the pictures are divided by neighbourhood, what comes across strongly is what these muckers share: a social ecology defined not by religion or politics but class. The working-class youth, as Binder puts it “have much more in common than either side would like to admit.” Aware also that “young people actually always have a very good sense of whether one is honest with them”, he built up rapport by being open, sharing photographs from previous visits and getting to know some of them.
It is an indictment of those governing Northern Ireland to observe that so many of Toby Binder’s photographs could have been taken thirty or more years ago. And sad, as well, to feel that it is still possible to take such pictures. ‘Muck’ can also be used as a verb to mean messing around, without due consideration. The youngsters of Belfast, affected, as Binder says, “by unemployment, drug and gang crime and social disadvantage” have themselves been badly mucked around with.