A mucker is a mate or a friend. “All right mucker?” or should that be “alright mucker?” The etymology and origins are unclear with ‘mucker’ being described as both a Britishism and an Irishism. Since we in Northern Ireland have spend more than a few centuries disputing our Britishness or Irishness it seems a highly apposite word for us to use.
Toby Binder is German so even with a thorough grasp of English it seems unlikely that he would have come across ‘mucker’ before he started his long-term project photographing the lives of young people across the United Kingdom. Post-Brexit or, rather, post-referendum – he travelled to Belfast and Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast is the result.
Binder chose six inner city neighbourhoods of Belfast, my home town. All struggle with socio-economic deprivation and exclusion and all are deeply marked by Belfast’s sectarian divisions. Highfield, Shankill, The Village and Sandy Row are overwhelmingly Protestant / Unionism / Loyalist (categories that while overlapping are not synonymous). Clonard and Carrick Hill are overwhelmingly Catholic / Nationalist / Republican (again, overlapping but not synonymous). This, then, is a very specific ‘subset’ of youth of Belfast.
The most striking aspect of Binder’s pictures is the way they illustrate both the ‘sameness’ and the ‘difference’ of these young people and their lives. Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Loyalist or Republican they look the same. Throughout the book Binder presents portraits of the young people he met. These are striking closeups focusing just on their faces and stripping out the environmental signals of flags, graffiti, tattoos and such like. Seen in this way it becomes impossible to ‘assign’ a particular individual to a particular tribe.
Pulling back a little, photographs of these young people in their environment maintains the sense of sameness – up to a point. The same Adidas and Nike casual wear, the same rows of red brick houses, the same patches of waste ground, the same detritus and litter, the same walls and fences and barbed wire. Up to a point – because in the sameness there are always markers of difference. The flags, the graffiti, the football shirts.
All of us who grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s had a finely tuned sense of ‘our’ territory and ‘theirs. It seemed almost innate. I remember back in the early 1970s, when the British Army were patrolling my neighbourhood, getting my hands on a map of the city that the army provided to troops on the ground. This was a cartographic representation of Belfast’s patchwork of division. Protestant areas were marked in orange, Catholic in green, while the ever-dwindling number of mixed neighbourhoods holding out against sectarian fragmentation were hatched (though I’m no longer certain of this last one). Back then, I couldn’t understand why anyone would need such a thing. Surely it was obvious? Back then I was hyper-sensitive to difference and largely oblivious to sameness.
Many of Binder’s photographs were taken during the period known as the ‘marching season’ when the Protestant community organizes parades and marches across Northern Ireland. The highlight of the marching season comes on the twelfth of July, with the parades preceded on the ‘eleventh night’ by huge bonfires lit in Protestant neighbourhoods. Pictures of bandsmen in uniform and bonfires reflect the Protestant experience, while images from the Catholic neigbourhood of Carrick Hill reveal the contested nature of the parades. No celebrations here. Instead, ranks of police Land Rovers – in my day a steely grey, now utterly incongruous in white with blue and yellow checks – blocking off streets, while lines of police officers face lines of young men. In the middle of it all a young girl takes her dog for a walk.
While these kind of pictures perhaps conjure up images of the photographer prowling the streets with Leica in hand, they were all shot on a medium format film camera. Interviewed on the WPO website (link below) Binder highlighted the way in which this medium forced him to take his time to get the shot which, in turn, helped him get closer to the young people he was photographing.
In the book itself Binder chooses not to comment on the project or the individual images. Instead, we have a superb essay by Belfast author Paul McVeigh on identity, borders, departures and returns, sameness and difference, all woven round his personal experience. I won’t do McVeigh the disservice of trying to summarise his words since they deserve to be read in full.
Binder’s images do not portray a flattering image of my city but I’m delighted that the book has been published. For too long Belfast was simply an easy stop off for lazy photojournalists looking for a bit of violence and drama but who also wanted to stay in a nice hotel between shoots and liked being only a hour from London. The natives were generally friendly to outsiders if not each other and they all spoke English – after a fashion. The violence ended, the photojournalists moved on and communities living with the consequences were left behind and forgotten. Toby Binder reminds us that the damage done is not easily repaired and that young people, some of whom were not even born when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, are still shaped by the conflict. Meanwhile Northern Ireland drifts, politically rudderless, while the politicians in London and Dublin obsess over Brexit.