Interview with Willie Doherty on remembering Bloody Sunday—and all the rest

Speaking to the artist who immerses himself in the Northern Irish situation and responds to its shifting sense of reality


Since the mid-80s Willie Doherty has been immersing his art in the complexities and contradictions of the Northern Irish situation. A lifelong resident of (London-) Derry—a city whose very name continues to be a bone of sectarian contention—Doherty’s photographs and videos often feature Derry and its surroundings —whether in wide ranging-panoramas or details of roadsides, buildings and hedgerows—but always in ways that are open to several interpretations. Rather than attempting to take sides or explain what is taking place in Northern Ireland, Doherty’s work goes beyond sectarian specifics to question and destablise the role of photography within a situation that continues to be saturated by photographic images and dominated by scrutiny of all kinds. He has stated that his work “is trying to undermine various notions of what opposites might be, and to show how the media’s perceptions of Ireland are completely unreliable.” Now, whether in the current context of Northern Ireland’s beleaguered peace process or in the wider international political sphere, Doherty’s investigations into how images can be manipulated and misinterpreted to obscure the simultaneous co-existence of several truths seem especially relevant. His current exhibition—his fourth at Matt’s gallery—features a new seven-monitor video work, “RETRACES”, and a new series of large black and white photographs.

TAN: “RETRACES” seems to be continuing to challenge our notion of photographic “truths” and how we read them.

Willie Doherty: Yes, the camera does not move, so in that sense it’s similar to other work that I’ve made in the past that deals with issues around surveillance. Some of the footage is shot in the day, some in the night, some in the same place over different times, some in rural situations, some in the city. Then there are subtitles within the piece which show dates, for example “Belfast, 1989”, or whatever, like the normal subtitling at the cinema or on a TV programme.

TAN: Are the dates referring to, or independent of, the images they accompany? Or is that what we are supposed to be questioning?

WD: They may or may not refer to the locations—many of them do—it is my going back to places that I can remember or that are about specific incidents. So there is that element which has always been in my work of the interplay between knowing, and doubt about what you are looking at. If you look at the images within the conventions of normal cinema or drama when you’re being asked to make a shift to a different place or a different time, then somehow you go along with it. So even though you’re actually standing and viewing this in real time—in the context of the gallery—there is also this narrative thread that moves backwards and forwards in time, which I suppose refers to the idea of retracing footsteps or going back in time, or meditating on past events.

TAN: So all the dates mean something, whether it’s something personal to you, or a political event, or whatever...

WD: It would be possible to find out, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. If you wanted, you could trace it to a specific act; but if I said to you, “July 1989” you may remember what you were doing at that time, or you may not. I’m as much interested in engaging the audience on that level: we all have a kind of history as well over the last decade, where we were in relation to particular events, some of which we will remember more clearly than others.

TAN: Although you place the viewer in very particular places in the North of Ireland, in a way—as with much of your recent work—we could also be almost anywhere in Northern Europe.

WD: I would like to give that feeling. The piece on seven monitors is accompanied by a number of black and white photographs which are of stains of various sorts: one is of an interior of a deserted car park and there is a nasty-looking stain on the ground, I did not really know what it was. They’re all taken at night, in quite low light levels, and there’s one of a façade of a building and this building is ambiguous: it could be in London, it could be in another European city. It’s quite hard to pin down exactly where it might be—but it has the kind of sense that you know it. You haven’t been there, but even though you don’t know the specifics of the location, you know what it’s about. I think—or hope— that all the photographs have that kind of quality.

TAN: In the pieces in this show—and throughout all your work—nothing much actually happens.

WD: I think that the video piece still has that sense; it is this kind of mundane observing. I do not reveal moments of great drama, so potentially this could be before something has happened, or after something has taken place. What I prefer is if the work allows the viewer to somehow create these events or fictions, that we know from somewhere else—where we have the sense that we already know what it’s about and that we’re a kind of participant, whether from first-hand experience or the experience of watching cinema or TV or whatever.

TAN: But they always seem imbued—to me at least—with an atmosphere of mounting anticipation and unease—dread, even.

WD: I think that’s true, but for me there’s another element in these images that is somehow incredibly romantic at the same time. Some of the landscape images that I use of sunsets, hedgerows, are not far away from what the Irish Tourist Board would use. And that kind of sentimentality gets tied up with violence and ideas around nationalism, and the part where things go wrong and get mixed up. In a way, sentimental postcard images of Ireland are just as oppressive because they are about the inability to change and the sense of always living in the past and thinking that that’s all there is.

TAN: The relationship in your work between photographs and moving images is a fluid and volatile one; they both undermine and reinforce each other.

WD: That’s always been important. I started working with black and white photographs again when I was in Berlin for a year and I suppose that since then I have been interested in what the black and white photograph means. It is quite different to a colour image. I cannot remember who said this, but there is a famous quote which goes something like: “black and white is the colour of the past” and I am interested in that kind of impact and the relationship that we have with those kind of images. The peculiar thing about these particular photographs [in the Matt’s show] is that, because they are black and white, they have that kind of shadow of the past; but they are also digital images and so they are also a complete construct. They occupy this funny position between a kind of modern contemporary technology and this notion of being from another time. There’s the tension within them that the process of making these images is almost at odds with how they look.

TAN: So you’re fusing two opposites in a way: the gritty “authenticity” of the black and white documentary tradition with the “artificiality” of digital image-making.

WD: Yes. And I think that process is visible in the images in the sense that some of the balances between light and dark, and some of the tonal aspects seem impossible. In a conventional photograph you could not actually even make an image like that. So they have this strange quality that shows that they’ve been manipulated, that shows their relationship with Photoshop.

TAN: The contradictions that are built into the actual making of these photographs adds another metaphorical level to the way in which the reading of your work flips backwards and forwards between anomalies and opposites: whether between victim and perpetrator; target and terrorist, or surveillant and stalker.

WD: I suppose the background for these is the whole business about the Saville Enquiry [into Bloody Sunday] that is going on here at the moment. It’s been going on for two years and they reckon it will take another two. They still have to go through this very legalistic process (although there is one truth that—as somebody said—even the dogs in the street know) and this involves the cross-examination of eye witnesses and their inability to remember specific details along with their desire to tell the truth and to find the truth—and the way in which this feeling has been compromised sometimes. So all of this stuff that has been around has been finding its way into the work: this idea of memory, the reliability of memory and our own ability to remember events and deal with that process.

TAN: Then there are the two movies that have just been made about Bloody Sunday.

WD: Yes, both have just been released. One is called “Bloody Sunday” and was on ITV last month. It is a drama based on a book, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, that was published a few years ago of eye-witness accounts of Bloody Sunday. This is stuff that mostly was not in the original account—and it was one of the books that was used as a tool in the calling for a new enquiry. The other is a film made by Jimmy McGovern which was also screened last month on Channel 4, which is the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

TAN: So in Derry you’ve recently been surrounded by some bizarre blurrings of fact and fiction.

WD: That’s the other very strange aspect of it; you start getting these layers. One layer is that you’ve got this enquiry going on. Then, at the same time, in Derry we had these two different film crews shooting two fictional accounts of this real event and reconstructing events in the places where they actually happened. One of the main streets was closed down and the façades rebuilt as they looked in 1972. Often the film makers were actually working with the families of the victims and some of the younger members of these families appear in the films. So you get this strange layering and always the sense that in the background there is this ongoing enquiry about this attempt to reach the truth of these events that is being impacted upon by these various fictitional accounts that are going on simultaneously.

TAN: The deliberate lack of any closure or resolution in your work continues to be an apt reflection of the continuing inability to reach any kind of resolution of the situation in Northern Ireland.

WD: I think that is a good point, and you really get a sense of this, living here. Although we are meant to be living in peace at the moment and although things are much more stable than they were even five years ago, there is still the sense that things are unfolding, that things haven’t been resolved and sometimes it is as bad as that young postman who was murdered recently, or the fact that in North Belfast around Holy Cross school the levels of sectarian violence are probably worse than they were a decade ago. But it is also the same as anywhere, there is a level at which life grinds on here and it is as boring as ever. There’s something about this place: you hope that things are at last going to be resolved, but against that there is the background drip, drip, drip of daily life and the incessant dripping tap of all that sectarian stuff that grinds you down and that you have to live through. Having to cope with that is what I hope my work communicates, too.


Born 1959, Derry, Northern Ireland; 1978-81 Fine Art Sculpture, Ulster Polytechnic

Currently showing “Retraces”, Matt’s Gallery, until 17 March

Shows include 1980 Orchard Gallery, Derry; 1987 The Town of Derry, Photoworks, Art & Research Exchange, Belfast; 1990 “Imagined truths” Oliver Dowling Gallery, Dublin; “Same difference” Matts Gallery, London; 1991 “Unknown depths”, John Hansard Galley, Southampton, Angel Row Gallery Nottingham; ICA London; 1993 “The only good one is a dead one”, Matts Gallery London; toured 1993-94 to Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris; toured to Fundacio Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; and in Canada and US; 1994 Turner Prize exhibition; 1996 Alexander and Bonin, New York; 1998 “Somewhere else”, Tate Liverpool, MOMA Oxford; 2001 Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast; IMMA Dublin; 2002 Representing Britain at Sao Paulo Biennal

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Remembering Bloody Sunday—and all the rest'