Guernsey Photo Festival: Adam Patterson

The Nothern Irish photographer returns from documenting South London gangs and trapped Chilean miners with a series of incisively personal portraits from his Northern Belfast community

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Famed more for its dairy than its artistic output, Guernsey is the surprisingly successful base for an impressive international photography festival that embraces the island’s quirks and liveliness. Hosting a few exhibitions in less traditional spaces such as a bus station and on a giant cube in the harbour, this year’s highlights include an extraordinarily brilliant series of works by renowned artists Samuel Fosso and Carolyn Drake, made more enticing by the rare opportunity to listen to them speak about their work. Part of the festival’s emphasis is to create space for emerging talent, such as last year’s humorously morbid competition winner Jocelyn Allen.

After making a name for himself with projects such as documenting South London gangs and the recent trapped Chilean miners, young Northern Irish photographer Adam Patterson takes hold of the festival’s broad theme of identity and focuses his remarkable ability to unveil an intimacy with his subjects on the place he left ten years ago. Adam’s series achieves an incisively personal perspective on Northern Belfast communities grappling with past and emerging notions of identity, creating a striking series that is boldly powerful and warm with sensitivity. Dazed managed to speak to Adam in Guernsey about the ideas and tensions that inspired his series.

Dazed Digital:Where did the idea for project come from?
Adam Patterson: I left Northern Ireland when I was 18 and spent the following decade doing work in different parts of the world. I wanted to engage different culture and people, I use photography to do that. But it gets to a stage where you look at your portfolio of work and think, ‘why am I chasing after other people’s lives so much? Why not look at where I come from and my life and made me the way I am?’ So that was the premise of going back to Northern Ireland. So I went back to really try to re-engage with a place I once knew.

DD: Did it surprise you how much the mentality of the kids in Northern Ireland has changed?
Adam Patterson: Yes, it has surprised me a lot. At one stage they were able to join up to these paramilitary groups and be a part of it, now they can’t do that and they feel very disenfranchised. They feel rebellious because they want to find something else, so they start to have these little groups with names like you have in London and make themselves gangs, because these kids are trying to fight for something that represents them.

DD: How does this effect their actions?
Adam Patterson:If you robbed from a shop in an area in the past, the certain paramilitary that controlled that area would probably seek you out and give you a beating for it. Now the police will step in of course, but it’s not as much of a deterrent. I’m not saying it was better back then, I’m just saying that’s the way the kids are thinking about it; in the past there was a lot of fear in the neighbourhood.

DD: How did you witness the communities trying to change their identity?
Adam Patterson: The whole peace process is a real balancing act, there has to be a lot of discussion and there has to be a lot of respect. You’ve got murals that are very aggressive and militant and they shouldn’t be there, but to some people maybe that’s their son who was killed on that mural. It isn’t good that young people, who are desperate for a role model, are looking up at the wall and seeing dead faces and machine guns. I’m not saying they shouldn’t grow up with their history, but seeing it as they walk past it to school everyday is a completely different thing. So the Arts Council and groups like Groundwork Northern Ireland and started cross table talks with different paramilitary groups. An artist spends literally weeks doing workshops with members of the community to build an idea, and that reaches to painting over the murals to building community gardens and even statues.

DD:Did you have this in mind with the picture of the young boy holding the bulb?
Adam Patterson: There’s something about the naïve excitement in the expression on is face, he’s almost holding the bud with a bit of pride. Young boys in a lot of these estates aren’t interested in planting bulbs, but the point in that picture is the stage of the reimaging where the community are all excited and this young guy wants to be involved and he’s looking around saying, ‘what do I do next?’ And that’s a great thing. I like the ambiguity with the picture because in some ways it doesn’t say much, but to me it means a lot because it’s a combination of a lot of work to get the kid to that stage.

Guernsey Photo Festival, June 2011, more info HERE

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