Fergus Jordan / Under Cover of Darkness
May 2012, Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Christiane Monarchi: Approaching the photographs in your latest series ‘Under Cover of Darkness’ (2008-11), the viewer is lured in by seemingly ordinary nocturnal, urban views. Yet moving further through your images, the visual clarity usually given by street lighting is brought into question, beginning a disorienting interplay of light and shadow, with resultant feelings of menace and comfort fighting for supremacy in almost every image.
Could you begin by describing why you have chosen nighttime as the setting for this body of work, with streetlights and pools of darkness as key subjects in these compositions?
Fergus Jordan: My curiosity with night started in the early 1990s. Growing up in a housing estate called Dunclug, I vividly recall lights being switched off to provide cover for the police as they would covertly enter the estate during drug raids while blackspot areas of the estate remained engulfed by powerful light throughout the night. I lived beside the main thoroughfare of the estate, making my house an easy target for passing vandals. Frustrated by the exposed position I decided to climb the lamppost next to the property spray-painting the light black. From my window I could see those near but they could not see me, the veil of darkness almost stopping attacks on the house. I became instantly intrigued by these spatial dynamics.
As I began to research for this project in 2008 I encountered a number of historical accounts documenting similar spatial conventions happening throughout the course of ‘the troubles’ (from the late 1960s until the early 1990’s). Several accounts revealed the routine manipulation of street lighting as part of a much broader covert spatial urban-warfare strategy. Disruption of lighting within pockets of territories of the city became a commonplace tactic employed by both the British army and organised paramilitary groups. For the army, darkness became a critical method to encroach upon dangerous areas, while paramilitaries would regularly shoot out lights as a tactic to conceal territory, making it difficult for the army to enter or exit. On both sides of the divide, street lighting was continually tampered with in an attempt to disrupt the tactics of the other. This set the context for Under Cover of Darkness, exploring the relationships between vision and territory.
Night became the backdrop but also the catalyst to amplify these tense scenes, revealing the tension that is still present in these sectarian blackspot areas today. Pools of light worked to physically fragment these spaces in a manner that corresponds closely to the political connotations of division, a dialect that sits uncomfortably within these highly charged sectarian landscapes. Throughout the series I use darkness and streetlight to draw parallels between territorial divisions and the appearance of physical duality.
CM: A viewer of your works may only realise the source of his uneasy viewing after the fact, when he reads accompanying text to learn that you have manipulated, and sometimes blacked out, sources of light in your images. Could you tell us the background for this concept, and why you have chosen to alter the images in this way, for these specific locations?
FJ: Most of the photographs are taken in North and West Belfast, an area known as the ‘patchwork territories’ of the city where Loyalist and Republican communities sit within close proximity. Moving around these landscapes I would myself quickly dislocated from the territory I was in, or the one that I was about to enter. As soon as I became dislocated from the political geographies of the landscape I would become increasingly anxious.
Correspondingly in making the work I attempt to displace the viewer by removing anything that would flag the landscape as a loyalist or republican territory. Defamiliarising these landscapes in this manner changes the way one perceives the dark and light spaces in relation to territory. For instance if you cannot determine the territory you are in, out of caution it is best to assume that you have wandered into hostile landscape. I implicate both darkness and light as spaces of fear and paranoia.
I am careful not to change too much, investing in the work without refraining from the reality I find myself confronted by, it is always a process of removing information, a streetlight, a sign or a familiar landmark, dislocating the viewer while staging tensions that are present yet invisible.
CM: Taken from the vantage point of a pedestrian walking alone at night, your images offer up specificity of place; particular streets, corners and empty alleys can be familiar to some viewers, but maybe not to those outside Northern Ireland. Are these places meant to relay specific markers, perhaps places that have been witness to sectarian violence? Or may they also be read on the level of archetypal ‘street’ standing in for the greater urban condition?
FJ: The series is an exploration of the specificity of night in Northern Ireland and as such having some knowledge of the history of the troubles and the photographers who have responded to the conflict helps contextualise the work. However the work sits within a broader framework, exploring social division and the mechanisms of a surveillance society.
Throughout my practice I employ a number of methods used by other photographers that explore these areas such as the Peripheral explorations of the city employed by Jules Spinatsch in his series Temporary Discomfort, or Stephen Tourlentes examinations of prisons in the American landscape. By doing this I acquaint the viewer with a universal dialogue as an inroad to my set of specific concerns.
CM: How have you felt personally, negotiating this territory yourself at night, and how have you wanted to translate this to the viewer? How would one’s experience of place change with daylight?
FJ: To answer the last part of your question first, I try not to visit the spaces I photograph during the day; I want my first encounters to be at night. However, sometimes I encounter certain spaces and make a point of revisiting the same space again with the cover of darkness. A space that looks relatively harmless in daylight can adopt a sinister feel at night. The most obvious example would be parks in the city so it becomes hard to measure my subjects through daylight encounters.
When I am negotiating territories at night I will spend a period of a few weeks visiting key locations before I begin to photograph them. I attempt to permit a discourse to fluidly emerge from these experiences, setting out to confront my instinctual fears of these spaces, walking into cul-de-sacs, wandered blindly down dark alleyways and constantly crossing territorial boundaries. Over time I find that I begin to unlock some of the unique spatial codes of the landscapes I work in. For instance, when I started the process of making this work in 2008 it seemed logical to assume that the easiest way to avoid confrontation on the street was to simply evade the depths of contested territories. As a result I often found myself suspended on the edges of housing estates at 3am in the morning, ‘deviant’ behavior that attracted a lot of unwanted attention from both residents and the police. Yet when I eventually entered hostile territory I was rarely approached. I realised that in order to be left alone it was important that I reveal my presence, appearing exposed, and vulnerable, therefore evoking a minimal amount of suspicion. I took this hypothesis further, altering my appearance, wearing high visibility clothing and covering my tripod and camera with reflective orange tape. Using this strategy my presence was noted but mildly disregarded. This gave me greater latitude to move and work without causing too much alarm.
As the social protocols of territory began to affect my physical behavior, I started to consider how I could filter these actions into the frame, revealing aspects of the spatial tensions I was feeling at the time. This resulted in a number of strategies that mirrored my approaches to making work. For instance, rarely are the photographs made at eye level, the assumed level tended to be much lower, framing close to darkened walls reflecting my anxieties of being watched. In contrast to this, I also framed out in the open, under the glare of streetlights evoking a greater sense of exposure. More often I kept a distance, choosing a wide framing angle with depth, drawing the viewer into the image only to leave them feeling dislocated.
CM: Wall graffiti and banners visible in certain images could serve to demarcate gang location or political zones, and much like streetsigns, need to be used to navigate terrain. However, each is useful at night only if illuminated. Blackening out sources of light in your images also obscures these markers, could it renounce territorial ownership of buildings and streets?
FJ: Northern Ireland iconographic symbolism is an important visual mechanism used to establish territorial power structures within the landscape. I spent a lot of time examining the surrounding iconography that is widely used to demarcate gang location. I was interested in how iconography changes at night, how they can alter, move, shift, appear and disappear, responding to darkness, light, shadows and colour cast. Sectarian signs and symbols are most often thought of as static physical objects yet the messages remain in daily flux. A never-ending dynamic commanded by the placement of streetlight, both obstructing and supporting these symbols and in some cases even amplifying their presence.
I wanted to reveal the volatility of the iconographic symbol as a powerful message that can become so easily dislodged by a thin cast of orange light. I found that the loyalist colours of red white and blue altered massively under orange light, turning muddy brown and yellow, shifting the meaning of the symbol just enough to permit the viewer to step out of their familiar relationship with these symbols, leading to a closer interrogation of the territorial authority of these spaces. Objects of fear and authority become vulnerable. and the cosmetic nature of these symbols are exposed. Under the streetlight territory is left open and defenseless. Its unyielding perception suddenly feels unconvincing. I like the idea that physical territory can become flexible, moving only in relation to where adequate vision and the correct colour temperature sanctions a clear reading of the displays.
CM: Have you been influenced by any particular artists or writers in the creation of this series?
FJ: I was particularly influenced by the made-do visual responses adopted by the photojournalist working at night in the 1970s and 80s in Belfast and Derry, covering the conflict as it unfolded on the streets. Photographers such as David Hurn and Peter Marlow where often forced to operate under constrained conditions using the availability of street light and the use of slower shutter speeds in an effort to increase the chance of registering an exposure. The resulting images tended to be ill defined. Yet rather than hindering the photographic process, these limitations underpinned a unique visual aesthetic driven by the circumstances the photographer found himself in. I was interested in the manner in which these early photographs of the conflict set the foundation for the broader perception of nighttime in Northern Ireland.
However Paul Graham’s series In Umbra Res: Sixteen Photographs of Northern Ireland Is perhaps the biggest influence. Graham’s work journeys through fragmented scenes of Belfast pursuing detailed studies of the landscape with an understated visual approach that reveals the metaphorical and symbolic relationships between anonymous objects and their place, fleshing out meaning that is embedded in every detail of the city. Each subject is characterised by the imposing use of artificial light, the deliberate result being to intensify the subject, even by using flashlight to almost blow out the exposure of the photograph in a scene-of-crime manner, isolating the crumbling pressure of life in conflict society. More significantly, with this series we begin to see the development of an approach that extends beyond the photographer working at night out of necessity to cover a story, towards using night as a platform to isolate the psychological burden of a society traumatised by years of conflict on the streets.