Publikum – Hello! So to kick things off at Publikum… First things first, tell us a little a bit about yourself – Who are you? Where are you from? and what first inspired you to pick up a camera to begin with?
Andrew – Hello. I’m Andrew Johnston, twenty years old and from East Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photography is so important as everyone is exposed to thousands of photos each day. They hold memories of days gone by and can show us the characteristics of a person or place. I’ve always had a passion for photography, as I was that kid that loved looking through the family photo albums. I’m quite interested in social change and how UK communities have progressed over the years: Political change, urban regeneration, fashion phases and the makeup of communities really capture my attention. Belfast Exposed photographers such as Frankie Quinn, Bill Kirk, Sean Allen and Sean McKernan, who documented Belfast through some of it’s darkest days inspired me to pick up the camera and start documenting the city I love.
P. – Regarding your work, you appear to maintain a stream of consciousness by adopting a strong documentary approach. Tell us generally what your work is about and the aim of your projects?
A. – I’ve always had an interest in the history and politics of Northern Ireland. The way people express their identity and culture through murals, graffiti, flags and parades is unique to this part of the world. Whilst it is often controversial, it’s something I’ve grown to appreciate. Documentary photographers don’t have to agree with what they photograph. They simply take the photo to show others what it’s like. When I go out to photograph, I don’t really have an ‘aim’ in my head, although when I think back to why I wanted to start photographing Belfast, there was a reason. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, the mainstream media would have you believe that everything in Northern Ireland is perfect. That’s far from the truth. As it stands Northern Ireland doesn’t even have a working Government. People still live in Protestant and Catholic areas, children are still educated separately, the number of ‘peace walls’ have risen since 1998 and some of the areas I photograph are still the most socially and economically deprived areas in Ireland. I guess I simply wanted to tell the truth!
P. – One of the things which really stands out for me about your work that draws from the political and social aspects is the strong sense of intimacy whether it be documenting residents at home, or on the streets with stark, close-up portraits. Which themes would you say are most prevalent in your work?
A. – Yes, I enjoy getting close to my subject. In fact, I think it’s important. Documentary photography is more intimate than street photography. I feel you can tell a lot about a person by looking at a
street portrait. The detail on their face, their fashion and their surroundings tell the viewer what this person is like. Sometimes i’m in the person’s house. This is something i’m trying to do more often as I love the results, however it is difficult to do. I’m trying it more with my family at the moment.
P. – On the topic of community – throughout your work you can see a strong connection between yourself and members of your local community. Would you say that this is something which already or existed, or came about through photography? I would love to know more about the roots of your work.
A. – I’m from a Protestant, Unionist background myself however I honestly couldn’t care what religion or race you are. Everyone should be treated equally. Much of my work focusses on the Loyalist
community. Places like East Belfast and the Shankill Road feature the most, however I think that’s because i’m from these areas and therefore they’re on my doorstep so they’re easier to document. I do try to cross over and photograph Republican areas. Places like the Falls Road, Divis, Short Strand and New Lodge. Saying that, there’s something about the way Loyalists express themselves that really fascinates me. They’re so staunch. Everything is in your face and I think that makes these districts interesting to photograph. If I’m being honest with myself, maybe subconsciously I do photograph Unionism more because i’m from a Unionist background. If you want to get really deep and go away back my family are Ulster Scotts, my two Grandfathers were orangemen, my Da was an RUC Officer and three innocent members of my family were killed during the Troubles when on holiday in Coleraine. I’m not saying this directly influences my work but if you’re asking about it’s roots, then it probably forms part of my point of view.
P. – Noticeably last year your work gained coverage and was published alongside many other talented photographers in the multi-disciplinary platform Invisible Britain. It need not be said, but a major congratulations to you and everyone involved! How does it feel to see your work produced in a physical publication like that?
A. – Thank you. It felt great. I had been contacted by Chloe Juno, a curator and photographer who’s currently documenting what people discard as rubbish. If you don’t know her, go check her out on insta. She told me a little bit about the book and as time went on, I read into it. It seemed like something i’d be keen to take part in. It was class when the book finally arrived and I was able to see my photograph on paper. It makes everything worth while when you see your own photographs as prints.
P. – More importantly however, the Invisible Britain project, being something that presents itself as being inherently political and describes itself as seeking to “work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to tell their stories…”. Would you say that this is an ideal you seek to showcase in your work? If so, how ?
A. – Of course. I never photograph the rich, the middle class or those that live in visually aesthetic areas. I want my photography to be real. I feel a connection with working class photography. Everybody knows photographers such as John Bulmer and Don McCullin. They spent their time capturing the nitty-gritty backstreets of England. They inspire me to do something similar in Belfast.
P. – With Brexit being a contentious topic and the issue of a ‘hard border’ lingering, being a photographer who comes from a strong documentary background, how would you say that Brexit has affected your community? If there has been a change, would you say that is has been a significant one? If so, in what way?
A. – I don’t think there’s any real big changes just yet. I’ve a feeling it’ll all work out in the end but time will tell. The whole issue around a hard border is very contentious at the moment. I feel like if there was to be any infrastructure put back on the border, then attitudes will harden again. Thats not something the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see. Whilst Brexit is an important issue, the timing of it isn’t great for Northern Ireland. As I said earlier, Northern Ireland doesn’t even have a working government at the moment so the debate around Brexit seems to be extremely divisive. Local issues aren’t being solved because we don’t have anyone working for the people of NI. This in return is having a negative affect on community services and so on.
P. – With the current portfolio of work that you’re developing, are there any future projects that you’re working on, or new work we can expect to be released over the year?
A. – If i’m honest, I’m not the best when it comes to organising projects or series. I just let it happen. It’s something I hope to master some day. Throughout the winter months when the weather wasn’t great, I resorted to documenting some of the older members of my family. This was indoor photography. I wanted to get closer to the people I already know and focus on their own environment. Much time was spent in their homes photographing the smaller details; the ornaments, the furniture, the pictures on the walls and of course the people themselves. This may make a body of work some day.
P. – When starting out, if you could give advice (whether it be photography related or not) to other people interested in photography, what would it be?
A. – Don’t be fooled by others. People would have you believe you need the best of cameras, the biggest of lenses and outstanding editing skills. All this is great if you have the money but I personally don’t think it always helps to produce the best photos. My advice is pretty simple. It doesn’t matter what you have, just pick up a camera and go document. One day everything you know could be gone!
P. – More on this, with social media being a strong and necessary way for creatives to connect, do you believe this is having a positive impact in shaping people’s creative styles?
A. – Absolutely. Instagram in particular is great for connecting photographers and artists. When you think about it, so many talented people in the 70s, 80s and 90s probably were overlooked simply because they didn’t have the same platform we have today. Today, we’re exposed to lots of stunning work, we can dip into the archives and follow people we admire. It’s definitely a perk of living in the twenty first
P. – Lastly, I would like to say a major thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. As the interview closes, are there any final words you want to mention? Current photographers whose work stands out to you? Most importantly, how can readers access your work?
A. – Thank you for taking an interest in my work. Currently the only place to follow my photography is on Instagram. I’d like a website some day but I don’t know when i’ll get round to doing that. As stated
before, there are so many talented people out there. A few photographers that have caught my eye include Jordan Murray, Stuart Robinson, Andrew Moore and Mathew Roberts. Go check their work out. Cool stuff!