Transmitting photographic energy of colour and love: Hannah Starkey’s Northern Ireland peace women
by Allan LEONARD
4 June 2023
As part of the Belfast Photo Festival and in partnership with the Ulster Museum, artist Hannah Starkey gave a talk about her previous work and current exhibition on display, Principled and Revolutionary: Northern Ireland’s Peace Women. She addressed an audience of two dozen seated in the middle of the exhibition room, surrounded by 21 two-metre portraits on the walls.
Starkey began by sharing memories of growing up in Belfast, accompanying her mother at her market stall, noting her respect and love shown to all, whether customers, neighbours, or authorities at checkpoints during the Troubles.
Starkey is known for her female gender focussed work, and she provided some background to this. For example, up through the 1990s, she explained, the arts was a very male-dominated environment, particularly in photography, with obstacles such as misogyny, sexual harassment, and objectification. There was this idea that you should dedicate your life to your work, and becoming a parent removed you as a serious competitor: “I find that really interesting, because for me becoming a mother is actually the most creative thing I can do. The life that I’ve had as a mother of two daughters and also being a visual, artistic photographer have worked out really well together.”
She was grateful for the proliferation of women’s artwork that emerged in the early 2000s, to compensate for the “male gaze that was destroying women”. Starkey noted, however, that institutional inequalities persist: “Even though women are probably 80% of photography students, it translates to 17% in the working world.”
Starkey said that her work tries to transcend the need for female beauty to be measured by sexual desirability. Even with fashion magazines and consumer products using ethnic minorities and “real women” in their imagery, “Advertising and Instagram are still making body types; we’re all products, made to be exploited.”
Instead, Starkey said that her work has enabled her to work with women to develop values of beauty. She presented women who were not perfect for the male gaze: “Some male critics saw my women as ‘lonely’ — versus ‘solitude’. Well, who are the images for? I want a normal woman to see herself in my images.”
As an example, Starkey used her image of a woman in pink boots walking across the street in front of a large paramilitary mural in Belfast. She asked rhetorically, “Why do these murals still exist? As a demonstration of male power, control by ‘hard men’, to intimidate women.” In this image, Starkey seeks to show this young woman’s defiance and confidence.
Principled and revolutionary
Starkey said that she always wanted to produce this project:
“My mother died when I was 30 and I missed her. It’s weird how you never stop thinking about the influence. I also saw how women have been devalued in visual culture and I really wanted to reconnect with women who had given me strength as a young woman to aspire to more, to know my power and my agency.”
She found herself coming back to Belfast, working on the project on a self-funded basis until the Belfast Photo Festival learned about it.
Starkey explained elements of the work, such as bringing a scarf to introduce some colour and “working as a painter with what I had”. She also carried a large plane of glass and would set it on a table for a purposeful, reflection image: “The table was a riff on women being at the table [of power].” She added:
“I wanted to try to counteract the writing out of history of women’s roles and how important they were in getting the [Belfast/Good Friday Agreement] signed — the [Northern Ireland] Women’s Coalition and all of the grassroots work that the women did to get us to that point. I just wanted to acknowledge that and say ‘thank you’.”
She also wanted to make a physical installation of her gratitude, one that emanated the energy of colour and love of the participants:
“Everything these women have done comes from a place of love, in my opinion. Even though they’re individual portraits, they’re supposed to work together. So, you feel the energy… it’s of them, who they are, and their character. I wanted to find a way of transmitting that.”
During the post-talk discussion, an audience member asked about the elapsed time among the participants of this exhibition. Starkey replied that 25 years on, many here are still activists: “You have to see older women represented in the world. It’s also about respect — the lives these women have given not being recognised by men.”
Another asked about how much society understands how imagery is used, towards them (to buy things) and by them (to present themselves). Starkey responded with the need to take back control of the image, by turning off filters and presenting a less sexualised version of reality. She cited a project at the Hepworth Wakefield — a guide for girls on how images work and how to think critically of them. From the audience, I asked Starkey if she was aware of the work of Grant Scott, who proposes that just as we learn in school to think critically about what we read in written text, there should be school classes at a young age to teach how to think critically of the images we consume. Starkey endorsed such a programme of visual literacy:
“Absolutely. Otherwise it’s criminal and negligent how we’re behaving with this generation.”
Principles and Revolutionary: Northern Ireland Peace Women exhibition is open at the Ulster Museum from 7 April to 10 September 2023.