Dan and I met in November 2013 (at a friend’s birthday in a London pub) after he had been travelling in the West Bank as a photojournalist. Growing up in Ireland, Dan had spent time travelling back and forth between the Republic and The North as a child, to visit family relatives and friends. He remembers having to hide in the footwell of the car to shelter from the stones battering the windows as they drove through Protestant/Loyalist areas in Belfast. The Irish registration plates gave away where they were from and branded them as ‘other’ despite the fact that in reality Dan was from a mixed family, having an English mum and an Irish dad. The duality of identity was therefore in Dan’s mind as a young child but the conflict didn’t seem to make room for these subtleties.
I also had a history with Belfast. My step mum was Mo Mowlam the Northern Ireland Secretary under the Labour government during the Blair years. During Mo’s time in Northern Ireland the Good Friday agreement was signed and political peace was finally negotiated between both sides. A ‘fragile’ peace has held ever since.
I am fascinated by identity. What happens when everything you have come to know is gone? When a belief defines you and a war – a battle, a fight suddenly stops. Does it just stop inside you too?
When I spoke to the men of Northern Ireland, I saw soldiers from both sides who had fought for a cause that they believed in, they had been imprisoned, lost family members and friends and had committed violent acts against others under the guise of war.
However, the war they were fighting is not officially recognised as a war, hence our reference to it as ‘The Troubles’. In 1998 the political leaders finally agreed to peace. It was agreed that the guns would be handed in and a new assembly was formed at Stormont.
But what happens to the foot soldiers? How do you go back to being a labourer or a taxi driver? How does all that anger and frustration play out? Who do you talk to? Do you just stop believing what you believed before?
That is not to say that people did not want peace. The vast majority did and still do today. But there needs to be a space for conversation and recovery. A process for grieving and forgiveness. It was the men that I felt had less space to do this than the women.
I wanted to create a platform and a space for this conversation amongst men. I wanted to tell a true story. I wanted to honestly investigate the identity of the country today. I no longer wanted to dwell on the past but I wanted to re-present a place today and explore what that ‘new’ ‘shifted’ identity looked like.
We regularly talk about the impact of war in the Middle East and Africa. We often refer to the conflict in India and Pakistan and we recognise the impact of 20th century wars on parts of Europe and across the Balkans but we don’t want to see Northern Ireland. This may be because it is too close, or because we choose to believe it fixed but whatever the reason I believed and discovered that there was an important untold story sitting on our doorstep.
These issues are particularly relevant at the moment as we are witnessing hundreds of thousands of individuals fleeing their homes, torn apart by war, in boats and by foot, to get to Europe where they hope to be safe from the horrors. But much of the horror will travel with them in their memories and minds. The traumas and pain will not be left behind with the war and their identities will be questioned and complicated as they try to make a new life in a new place.
‘Born and Reared’ has taken two years to make and we have met some extraordinary characters. With the men came their families and their friends too, so while it’s story about men, there are inevitable female voices throughout. We worked with twelve men in total over two years.