Nothing without Labour - Rebecca Burns. Essay by Wes Foster
With a practice formed somewhere around a social documentation, Rebecca Burns’ work and narratives are immediately influenced by people. From this, the narratives then form and surround the work. Her soft images draw landscape and portraiture together in a captivating manner, allowing the landscape to reflect person and vice versa. Within this there is no real punctum - one pivot or anchor point - instead, a flat emotional understanding of subject. Harsh edges of the man-made clash with the muted nature of the natural scene. My Father’s Troubles follows a journey through Ireland that takes into account a rich heritage, but also an ever present violence. Unlike many of the originals documenting this during the heights of the troubles, it is not shot with this violence in mind. There are no stark black and white images, burnt out cars or truly militarised police. Instead, images become much more reflective of a more current mood within the history of the occupation of Ireland - the muted, toned violence which is still present psychologically, but cannot be named or seen in the same way. Through watchtowers, steel fencing and CCTV there is an ever present reminder of what may become, lurking beneath the surface. The images follow an exploration with her father, looking at the outposts and barracks that are left.
Ireland has seen violence flair up time and time again with the Norman invasion in 1169 marking the beginning of English forces in the area. In 1601, Ireland was taken entirely to become part of the British Empire. In a very brief history: various uprisings rallied against the Empire, but failed, until in 1922 through the Irish War of Independence, 26 of 32 counties of Ireland became the Irish Free State. Though there was never really an end to violence, the Troubles is said to begin properly in the Sixties - though nobody really agrees on an actual date. Marked by an escalation in guerrilla tactics by both sides, as well as violence towards civilians and everyday brutality through common bullying and fighting. Violence tends to be more memorably attributed to the IRA (especially speaking as someone who grew up in England) though paramilitary organisations inflicted damage from both sides. There was never a safe space - there was not the division in terms of imagining the North and the Republic, communities mixed and clashed, divided not by barriers but at times, only streets. Many that remember it, or grew up in it, don’t really talk about their memories, despite it being an ongoing problem especially with a heightening of tensions through Brexit, and reports of violence flaring again. Perhaps this is due to the nature of it - there is no one absolute solution. Some sort of fragile peace is perhaps all that can be achieved for the time being, and that it doesn’t rupture too much is enough.
Rebecca’s father grew up through The Troubles - not so much involved, but around it. Living in Ireland, there is no real way to have distance from it - most families would know someone affected by it. Her father grew up in Lisburn, close to Belfast, but with a Catholic family. They were regularly bullied, until one of the family was beaten by neighbours with sticks. At this point they fled, taken by his father’s Catholic work friends over to Mayobridge, a rural village which was much less violent. His father had ‘done rounds’, helping to patrol areas at night - so it could be assumed that the move had links to paramilitary groups, even if not directly. The idea of the paramilitary seems to be extreme to anyone that has never lived under occupation, though at times these organisations are needed to protect those who would otherwise be much more vulnerable. It is important to recognise much of Ireland (especially at the time) as an occupied space, within which most Catholics on the Protestant side would have very little protection. Despite the Troubles having meant to have ended in ’98, Rebecca would regularly hear of bomb threats throughout the 2000s, with buses diverted on the way in to school. Even now there is an unspoken violence: a constant oppression which is drawn upon by the many barracks and holds built by the British Army. The army are technically gone now, withdrawing in 2007, but replaced by a heavily militarised police presence, especially throughout the border regions. Steel fencing hangs over many of the outposts which were once used as strongholds. The heavy violence which remains now is not the violence of the car bombs, or the kidnapping, but it is the footprint of the force of an empire which has made its mark. Growing up through this, there is always a level of trauma that hangs. Originally this is what My Father’s Troubles was about: her father growing up within the geography of violence, and the landscapes of that experience. And this is probably what the currently published images represent.
Her father left after he and her mother divorced. To Rebecca, for a long time he wasn’t someone that she really knew - a distant figure, vaguely present, but not there directly. For a long time there was some resentment towards this - anguish at not having him around. Though the project began as a way to plot and talk about wider political issues, it soon became a reconciliation between her and her father. Her dad is someone that has had many jobs - flitting between them; he had been a driver, delivering along the border and knew many of the areas they visited well. It was for this local knowledge that she had asked him to come. It’s easy to see how this constant movement might add distance to the relationship. Rebecca had shot with him before - in her series Opus Dei she photographed Catholic confessional boxes, with her father helping and driving. Here they laid the foundation for what became of My Father’s Troubles - a practice of spending time together. Beginning as being about his experiences, it became more about their relationship. Through the course of working along the border towns, they spent all of their time together staying in B&Bs on route. They spent 12 days together, with her dad at one point remarking on how they hadn’t turned the radio on once through the journey, instead just talking. The project, and the images then become as much a reflection of their bonding as they are of following the traces of the barracks, the Troubles, and British rule. Previously they never really had flowing conversation - which with parents can be especially true during those difficult years from fifteen to twenty, I wouldn’t say that I do that often with my own Dad even now. But through the process of at the very least imposition, they have become much closer. Previously, his focus was on her education and bringing her up and it seems that now she is an adult those focuses have relaxed, and the pressure released somewhat. They have found common ground in places she didn’t think they would, but most of all an aptitude for discussion rather than the usual resignation that many of us face with some family members. Every Monday they now share a phone call, as a regular catch up.
The relationship between someone from Ireland and the UK is never easy - there is an obvious sense of mistrust. As Rebecca says that the EU is seen as an older sister, there with some power to reign in British occupational rule. Brexit has changed a lot in Ireland - it is easy to think of violence in Ireland as a part of the past but paramilitary actions have been on the rise over the last few years. Arguably this is down to anxieties over the border, seemingly something which was not thought about until quite far into the Brexit negotiations. Either results face difficulties, vaguely speaking on the one hand a hard customs border is established, flaring up violence between the North and South, on the other, Northern Ireland is cut off from the rest of the UK, possibly weakening the position enough to a level of vulnerability. This relationship is constantly present to anyone that moves over from Ireland. When asked how she identifies, she would always say she was Irish rather than British, and sides with Ireland being a republic, though comes technically from Northern Ireland, Newry in County Down (one of the counties closest to the border). Though not a devout Catholic, she still sees herself as part of this heritage, and has been around a non-violent family talking about a (non violent) united Ireland for twenty-three years. To many in the South, the border counties are seen as ‘British with an Irish accent’, and not truly Irish by nature of proximity. In 2015 Rebecca moved to England to study. It was simply a case of there being no space for photography at most of the universities in Ireland. She began studying in Plymouth, but then dropped out during the second year, finishing her final two years at the Manchester School of Art instead. Strangely, her dad had studied bookkeeping in Manchester when he was younger - this shared place was something else which had brought them closer together. Previous to this, photography as a subject wasn’t really a presence. The closest she had come was studying Moving Image Arts at A-Level though had always been interested in the still image since picking up a camera aged eleven.
Low level trauma runs through Ireland. The Troubles is a not so distant memory, hanging over the recent history of the land, especially as violence still flares up from time to time. Rebecca learnt the history mostly through school - an English orientated curriculum, whilst family would never really talk about the past. Often it is that which is the closest is the hardest to understand. A trauma towards the violence, through the fear of car bombs, for paramilitary actions, is passed down to every generation. It is still (and probably always will be) somewhere struggling for an outright solution and peace. From the beginnings of the project being about her father’s experiences of the Troubles, as someone growing up and alive during, the focus has been torn away. Instead the project looks much more at her experience growing up in Ireland, and a knowing trauma that sits beneath. This is tied together through the landscapes which were shot. Rebecca felt that there was something missing, some sort of punctuation which wasn’t allowing the project to be fully formed. After going through the images of the barracks, she returned a few months later to also photograph in the mountains. They followed the water trails for a week and a half, and these much more poetic and natural landscapes allow there to be a much more traceable trauma between people and the landscape. This pain is a part of being in Ireland, and is very much a part of the land.
When exhibited in 2019, four portraits of her father were all that was shown. When seeing these four images, her father had been touched. It was at this moment he had realised that as much as the making of the images was an outward exploration of the Troubles, it also inwardly looked at who they were and their relationship. One of the most formidable parts of this project is that it feels not like a standalone statement. It feels, to its strength, like it is not finished. The images which have been collected so far are simply a snapshot. As much as Opus Dei was the beginning of them shooting together, My Father’s Troubles feels like a continuation and not the end. There is so much to delve into that there can never be a reckoning. Through shooting these scattered and fragmented notions of memory there allows an examination, and a reflection. Watching these projects unfold, the viewer sees more in the development of their relationship, and as more work is created slowly within this vein, it will grow further, becoming a unique depiction of Northern Ireland and living there. By not really approaching from one rigid format - i.e. the social documentary of the space, or the portrait photographer working with subject, there is a free nature to the work, allowed to develop at its own pace and dipping in and out of different places. Rather than there being a definitive outcome, these many and continuing readings allow for there to be a broadness to the work. Mostly though, it allows the shooting of the work to be done in a much more free manner - usually the imagined outcome is too present in the images. Here, the images are simply a byproduct of them spending time together, a reflection more closely of their relationship developing and changing and how this growth is being pushed forwards by the making of the work itself. It is rare that a project can do this - become more than just a series of images.