Return to the Row, by Bill Kirk


Return to the Row, by Bill Kirk


I look upon my new Sandy Row photography from many different angles, not least being that nearly half a century has passed since my 1970’s project. Those years have ushered in the digital age and astonishing advances in camera technology. However, the same years have been added to my lifespan, making me 82 years old and almost certainly engaged on my swansong.

In there early days of July 2017 the Magnum photographer Gilles Peress travelled from Manhattan to Sandy Row and other Northern Irish locations. Although I had been friendly with him in the 1970s I strangely found myself uneasy and in awe of his great reputation. This time round I was shy in his presence and unable to respond appropriately when he said that one of my ’70’s photographs of him had placed him in the very culture of Sandy Row.

My documentary method is to walk about taking simple record shots of objects or people of interest. I always hope that as I seek to be open and receptive I may get lucky and find the offbeat, humorous or surreal images that can surprise, raise questions, or entertain, but never, ever, at anyone’s expense. These ‘special’ images can only be a small proportion of a total shoot, and they cannot be forced. It is down to luck. But this may be where art comes into the debate.

In 1973-74 Sandy Row housing was atrocious. You could not walk past. It absolutely had to be photographed. Mrs Elliott of Boyne Square said to me “Show what the landlords do to us, son.”

People from the Falls Road who saw my photographs of 1970’s Sandy Row in 2010 said, “Hey, we thought we were the victims”.

Poverty is strangely hidden in Sandy Row today. Although there are food banks, all the living rooms, lounges and kitchens are lovely. Like wee palaces!

My period of study at the College of Art in 1972-75 had been a bit of a struggle for my family. It had enabled me to build a fair body of work and the Arts Council were receptive, exhibiting my photographs in their gallery in Bedford Street. Eventually, in order to make ends meet, I took up a job at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in 1978 which was looked at askance by some.

However, I held to my documentary ideas and was published in Images of Belfast with Robert Johnstone’s words in 1983. It contained strong images which are often referred to now as iconic.

I retired early from that job in 1995 and entered a period where I took it easy, did some cycling, some landscape and sports photography, and mostly did not think about my negative files. Around 2009, however, Frankie Quinn, then Director of the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast asked to see my negatives. This led to a series of much admired exhibitions which brought me back to public attention and eventually led to the idea of the new Sandy Row project.

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