If you’re not confused you don’t understand: A re-evaluation of the early political landscape photographs of Willie Doherty

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Hung low on the wall
The viewer is caught in the act of surveillance
The surveyor and the surveyed bound together with profound uneasiness
Silvery grey fog envelopes, a claustrophobic silence descends
The fog of trauma and memory seeps into the bone
Text directs and misdirects

During 1990/91 Willie Doherty exhibited a series of photographs with text in the exhibition Unknown Depths at: Orchard Gallery, Derry, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, Ffotogallery, Cardiff, ICA, London and Angel Row Gallery Nottingham. Thirty years ago this touring exhibition helped establish Doherty as a significant international artist and positioned his work as eyewitness testimony to a lived reality of what is now referred to as The Troubles.

This paper sets out to closely re-examine these early photographic landscape works by Doherty that capture the socio-political climate of a time and place. Some of the work examined was created ten-years before the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The work in question captured a period of intense violence and social, political and economic stress. The effect and consequences of violence and tit-for-tat reprisals was a regular and almost daily feature of news reports at the time. The official date for the end of The Troubles appears to be 2007 but these dark days cast a long shadow into the present and beyond. The current socio-political climate in Britain following the Brexit decision in 2016 brings Northern Irelands need for soft or hard boundaries centre-stage. With a year to go Britain as a whole is looking at a north and south divide.

It is in this light that I re-examine the early photographic work of Doherty. Through recollection of first-hand experience of visiting the Unknown Depths exhibition in Glasgow in 1990 along with a range of critical reviews I will review Doherty’s positioning as an artist engaged in what Victor Burgin has referred to as the representation of politics and the politics of representation. Crucial to Doherty’s practice is the importance of ‘not-taking-sides’ this positioning has also influenced other artists that have engaged with the representation of politics. The paper also considers Doherty’s claim that through his practice he aims ‘to try and reflect the way the terrain creates an understanding of the place’. The terrain in question is the cartography of Northern Ireland and in particular Derry. For the purpose of this paper terrain will also refer to the context and situation leading up to the 1980’s.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2018
EventNorthern Light: Critical Approaches to Proximity and Distance in Northern Landscape Photography - Hallam University, Sheffield , United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Jul 20183 Jul 2018


ConferenceNorthern Light
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Contemporary Art
  • Place
  • Situation
  • History
  • Discourse
  • criticality
  • Photography
  • Text
  • Image
  • Northern
  • Politics
  • Doherty


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