Separation at a distance: Paul Graham on presenting the problems | photography

Pul Graham first visited Northern Ireland in 1984. “I was in my mid-20s and curious,” he says. “I wanted to see what was happening for myself.” Traveling around the province in a rental car, he was immediately struck by the gentle beauty of the landscape, but also felt “a vague sense of tension and unease” as he drove through villages , which were adorned with either Union Jacks or Irish tricolors.

Graham had already made two acclaimed books on still observational documentary photography in the early 1980s: A1 – The Great North Road, for which he has traveled the entire distance, and Beyond caring, which was filmed in employment offices across the UK. However, the social landscape of Northern Ireland during the Troubles presented a different sort of challenge for a young photographer who, as he puts it today, “wanted to find out what was going on there on my behalf”.

  • Graffiti, Ballysillan Estate, Belfast, 1986.

In the countryside, his presence aroused the curiosity of locals, unaccustomed to seeing a stranger with a camera, apparently taking pictures of fields, hills, and deserted roads. He was understandably feeling more anxious on the territorial roads of Belfast and Derry. “I was an Englishman traveling alone and didn’t have a press card,” he says. “It was frustrating because I couldn’t just hang out in bars thinking I was an object of suspicion. Aside from meeting some friends, I spent a lot of time alone.”

This sense of distance, physical and psychological, characterizes every image in his classic photo book, troubled country, which is currently being re-released. Comprised of determinedly elliptical landscape photographs taken on around a dozen trips to Northern Ireland between 1984 and 1986, it is a study in what might be termed detached engagement. The opening image hints at his approach: a tall tree shot over a green meadow with a mountain in the background. It takes a moment to register the Union Jack fluttering on the highest branches. The second seems even more banal: a view of the border town of Strabane from a vantage point on an overgrown hill above a row of houses. You have to look very closely to see the crowd walking by on a street far below – demonstrators at a Republican parade.

Republican Parade, Strabane, 1986.

Ironically, the best-known image from the book is perhaps the least typical: an elevated view of the Ballysillan loyalist housing estate in Belfast, with the outline of Cave Hill visible in the background under gloomy rain clouds. In the foreground, the word “WARNING” is painted in bright orange capital letters on a low brick wall. Here Graham’s personal sense of “Fraughtness and Unease” is palpable, the absence of people giving the sprawling landscape an even more ominous aspect.

The day after we spoke, Graham emailed me a press photo he remembers from that time. It shows a group of youths in Belfast throwing rocks at the army, and behind them a line of British press photographers, all essentially taking the same photograph. “I had this photo pinned to a wall in my studio as a constant reminder of what I didn’t want to do,” he tells me over the phone from New York, where he’s lived since the 1990s. “I had to find a more elliptical approach. When you’re working on a project you subconsciously find what’s necessary, and in this case it was to start photographing from afar and steadily approach.”

The resulting images were so understated that when the book was first published in 1987, one reviewer viewed the resulting photographs as a sort of denial of the contested politics of place and identity that so defined Northern Ireland in the public consciousness. In fact, they are visible everywhere, hiding in plain sight. “You have to look closely to find out what’s happening where,” says Graham now. “Essentially, these are conflict photographs masquerading as landscape photographs.”

'PROVOS' (provisional IRA graffiti), Newry, 1985.

back if troubled country First published in 1986, I remember being struck by the profound familiarity of Graham’s almost ordinary landscapes: country lanes bisecting manicured fields under a great, clouded sky; rainswept red brick streets and sprawling suburban estates; mysterious Bible quotes – “Eternity Where” – painted on handmade wooden signs nailed to roadside trees. His images evoked a deep sense of the place I grew up in, all the more so as they eschew the usual reportage clichés: loud protests, riots, burning cars and bombed-out buildings.

Thirty-five years after it was first published, it is still so, many of its landscapes seem both contemporary and oddly timeless. Tribal flags and political placards still proliferate in Northern Ireland, and Bible verses still appear like warnings nailed to trees and posts lining country roads. “All my prejudices were challenged almost from the moment I got there,” says Graham. “Nothing matched what I read or was told. The calm distant view was really the only way I could go.” It still resonates.

troubled country by Paul Graham appears this month from Mack (£45)

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