An Interview With: James McCourt

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I am a young photographer from Belfast and have just completed my BA Hons in photography at Ulster University where I have been studying for the past 3 years. Through the medium of photography I explore the political landscape of the local area in Belfast where I was born and raised .

What would be a short description of your work?

My work looks at the idea of community in an urban landscape which has historically been steeped in political tension. The Garden of Hope which I document in my work, is a farm area which has been developed within an urban housing estate in West Belfast as a way of bringing the community together.

Where did the idea to work in this urban farm come from?

I grew up in the Whiterock of West Belfast which has been a great sense of inspiration within my photographic practice. Spending five years making work around the streets, I happened to stumble across the farm. I didn’t know of the farm until I was driving around one day thinking “Where do I photograph?”. The idea seemed to find me, an unexpected exploration but one that I am grateful for.

If you were to choose your favourite photograph what would it be and why?

I have a lot of personal favourites in my photographs for my current series. I am emotionally connected to the images that I make as I have spent much time interacting with the characters who work on the farm.

My favourite image is a close up of one of the hens from the farm being held up to the camera by one of the gardeners, Dan. I used a bed sheet as a make shift studio to give a clean background.

The hidden details within the frame such as the indian ink tattoo on the hand of Limbo and the creases of the sheet add a texture to the photograph.  When I reflected on why I selected this photograph, I noticed there is a sense of pride in these animals.  The hands offer the hen to the frame to allow the audience to engage with the photograph. 

At an early stage of my studies in Photography, I discovered the work of Frankie Quinn. A local photographer based in Belfast. Quinn's archive documents the ‘troubles’ of Northern Ireland. I remember visiting his gallery in the city centre and I was hooked. Scrolling through Quinn's website, a photograph of two young lads holding a plank of wood to the camera. One child mimics a gun with his wooden plank as the background shows the boarded up houses. This photograph, to me, was a statement of the social class living in Belfast during the times of conflict and an image that has inspired my own photographic exploration. 

What did you learn through making this project?

Over the months I’ve learnt a lot about myself. Both in my identity and my culture.  Photographing the majority of my studies in Belfast I have wanted to find a place that I could truly engage with.  A place that gets you out of bed in the morning to make new pictures, I found this with the farm. My photographic identity became stronger as I got closer to my subject. Yet, this whole experience has allowed me to appreciate my childhood area. 

The importance of collaboration has been vital to my series. The volunteers of the farm have supported my photographic exploration throughout. Engaging and discussing the photographs, their input has been invaluable. 

What do you want the viewer to gain from the project?

 For the Good Turf has always been about the experience of this urban farm. The documentation of the everyday and how the local community engage with these animals. Through capturing these engagements, it offers the audience a step into this unique place of solace in a community.

What is the best piece of advice you could give a student of photography?

The best advice I can offer to a student of photography is to be yourself. Photograph what you are interested in and enjoy being there and making work. Laugh, smile and enjoy every minute of studies and you’ll reap the rewards. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes, it’ll not be going as you planned but that is when you stumble across something beautiful. 

Lastly, collaborate with other students in photography and other departments to help with research and reflection. Other input to the work will allow you to achieve a greater outcome. 

All images copyright of James McCourt