My talk was part of a panel entitled ‘Emotions, rituals and memories’, which should be made available later to watch on the conference platform.
The abstract for the paper is below:
Conflicting Memory and Social Media: Memorialising the Northern Irish Troubles on Instagram
Photosharing app Instagram provides unprecedented opportunities for distributing photographs challenging the ‘official memory’ of conflict. The ‘connective turn’ not only renders conflict photography searchable, but aggregates the memories of traumatised communities. This paper adds to the nascent literature in this area by exploring how Instagram is used to share photographs of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles,’ a low-intensity conflict that resulted in 3,600 fatalities and left many more bereaved, injured and traumatized. Twenty years after the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society in which competing narratives over the conflict and its constitutional status remain deeply entrenched. This study explored the visual representation of these narratives on Instagram, with a specific focus on the type of images shared and the comments they generated from other Instagrammers. A content and visual framing analysis of 100 historical images tagged #thetroubleswas conducted between August and December 2019 in order to explore these issues. Results indicate that images of everyday life during the conflict, such as children playing in desolate urban landscapes, and British soldiers, typically depicted holding weapons against a backdrop of civil unrest, were the most prominent visual representations under this hashtag. Those shared by British army veterans depicting their experiences typically sparked a polarised debate between pro-British and pro-republican commenters on the origins of the conflict. While the affordances of Instagram broaden participation in processes of memorialization, they also lay bare the absence of a shared narrative on the violent past in ‘post-conflict’ societies such as Northern Ireland.
The iconic nature of this image was cemented when eighties rock band Killing Joke repurposed it for the cover of their eponymous debut album, released in August 1980. Nevertheless, McCullin rejected the suggestion that he was a ‘war photographer’ and later expressed profound regret that these conflict images had so little impact on the longevity of the Troubles. His frustration over the efficacy of this ‘witnessing’ was reflected in the title of his 1973 book: Is anybody taking any notice?
Fast forward four decades and it would appear at least some people are interested in the work of McCullin and his cohort of ‘combat’ photographers during the early days of the Troubles. During my conversation with John Coster as part of the 24 Hour Conflict Reportage Newsroom, we discussed the preliminary results of a new study of mine exploring 100 images tagged #thetroubles on Instagram. I found that many of these had been uploaded to the photosharing site to commemorate the anniversary of key events such as the Battle of the Bogside (August 1969), the Brighton hotel bombing (October 1984), and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten (August 1979). In addition to showing the aftermath of high-profile bomb attacks, many images showed the violent clashes between nationalist youths and members of the security forces that have become so deeply ingrained in collective memories of the Troubles.
What was particularly fascinating was the juxtaposition of ordinary life with the sectarian violence that had erupted in the divided society in the late 1960s. For example, an image originally taken by photojournalist Clive Limpkin showed a young woman standing in the foreground of a rubble-strewn street. It had a certain mutability given that there were no visual clues showing its shooting location, with the exception of the caption which confirmed it had been taken during the Battle of the Bogside.
There were also images showing children playing and even eating ice cream in close proximity to armed British soldiers. The dearth of contextual information meant that they could only be identified as being from Catholic or Protestant working-class neighbourhoods based on the paramilitaries that featured on murals or graffiti captured in the background of these images.
Elsewhere, British army veterans shared photographs of themselves and their colleagues during their tours of Northern Ireland between the early seventies and the mid-nineties. In one case, the caption noted that one of the soldiers that featured in the photograph had been killed by a Provisional IRA sniper in South Armagh a few weeks after it had been taken.
Photographs depicting British army personnel on patrol tended to attract the most antagonistic comments from pro-republican commenters. Photographs posted by British Army veterans were frequently met with antagonistic comments such as ‘Go Home’ and “we’ll fight you for 800 more years”. Their hostile interactions with British military enthusiasts in the comments sections of these images invariably degenerated into arguments over the legitimacy of the British presence in Ireland.
The haunting ‘war photography’ of McCullin and his colleagues appear to have found a new audience on Instagram. Irrespective of whether they are collected or collective memories, it is clear that these photographs do not function as a focal point around which shared narratives on the cause of the conflict can be fostered. Indeed, social media is being used to circulate images that illustrate the persistence of partisan, antagonistic forms of public memory in Northern Ireland, two decades on from the Belfast Agreement.
This evening I will be doing an ‘in conversation’ with John Coster (Documentary Media Centre) as part of the 24 hour Conflict Reportage Newsroom. We will be discussing my new project on Instagram images of the Northern Irish Troubles, as well as a general chat about media coverage of the conflict. John has put together an excellent set of online (free) resources for those wanting to learn more about the conflict here.