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Sectarian murders – Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright (b 1965) is Professor of Photography and Head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster. His website describes his series of photos, Sectarian Murder:

Sectarian Murder revisited the sites of Sectarian attacks during the 1970’s close to where Seawright grew up in Belfast. The texts are from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of innocent civilians, killed for their perceived religion.

The work challenges the boundaries between documentary and art by connecting long-time aftermath photos of murder locations with text from newspaper reports about the murders. The narrative of the photos provides no trace of the original murders and we only know of the connection through the context provided by the newspaper text. The meaning of the photographs is not immediately apparent, unlike it would have been from the original photo-journalistic photos. Seawright explains this aspect in his interview with the IWM – the meaning of the photos is determined by the viewer, revealing itself as the work is studied. I found this mechanism effective, leading me to pause and reflect on what might have happened and upon the misery caused by the troubles.

Source: paulseawright.com
Source: paulseawright.com

Seawright’s work was originally conceived as art, although it has a firm connection with a documentary of events. The accompanying text provides a strong narrative that guides the viewer to find a meaning related to the artist’s intention. As long as the photos and text remain connected, so does the meaning.

However, if documentary photography is subsequently extracted from its context and presented as art, its meaning can be changed, as can any photograph when place in a different context. For example, Hariman and Lucaites explore the interpretations of Dorethea Lange’s iconic image, Migrant Mother, quoting John Szarkowski :

One could do very interesting research about all of the ways that the Migrant Mother has been used; all of the ways that it has been doctored, painted over, made to look Spanish and Russian; and all the things it has been used to prove.


Hariman R and Lucaites JL (2007). An excerpt from
No Caption Needed, Migrant Mother. Available from: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/316062.html [accessed 18.10.15]

Imperial War Museums (IWM) (nd). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. Available from: http://vimeo.com/76940827 [accessed 18.10.15]

Paul Seawright [website]. Sectarian Murder. Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [accessed 18.10.15]

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