When I was a teenager, I always had a camera. In those days, in the ‘70s, it would probably have been a Kodak Pocket Instamatic or something similar. It would have been used for taking the usual holiday and family photos. The first Wall Murals pictures that I took was at the top of the street where I lived, just off the Springfield Road in Belfast. They were not very sophisticated and were simple in their execution. Other murals started to appear. I started noticing them and realised that they would be worth photographing and recording. I got these photos printed in the size that was usual then, 5 x 3 inches, and put into a small album. This was my first album of Wall Murals, which I still have.
In 1980, I started working for British Telecom (BT) as an engineer. This job meant that I worked all over Belfast on both sides of the sectarian divide and further afield. I started to see many more wall murals, mostly in the loyalist and republican working-class areas of Belfast. I started taking photographs of these and putting them into albums.
I soon realised that some murals would be paint bombed (paint put into a balloon and thrown) or destroyed not long after completion. The face of Belfast was also changing rapidly with urban development. I realised I had to get to the murals as soon as they were completed then I could photograph them and record them for posterity.
Many of the areas where the murals were painted were not safe places for strangers to be. But fortunately, my BT van gave me easy access to all these areas with an added sense of safety and neutrality. However, that didn’t stop me from getting in and getting out as quickly as possible, with very little time spent getting the right angle or lighting.
I soon realised that going at a quieter time of the day would give me an improved chance of getting a better photo. I started to go on Sunday mornings when things were quieter and there was less traffic blocking the shot or the mural. I usually went in my car or occasionally on bicycle.
By this time, I had bought myself an Olympic OM10. My photos started to improve in quality, and I also realised that I needed to get my photos printed in a larger format – I opted for 6 x8 inches. I soon owned hundreds of photographs, and these went into albums of different sizes and design. On the back of the photos, I wrote the date and location. However, sometimes I didn’t get round to annotating them, although I always remembered where I took the photograph but maybe not so sure of when. The number of albums I had started to increase!
I’m very glad I decided to record the murals. I now realise that not only do we have a snapshot of the murals that are long gone but we also have a snapshot of the old buildings and streets of Belfast and other places long gone. We also see how over time the murals have changed, depending on the political and social changes of the day. Gone are a lot of the paramilitary murals to be replaced by more cultural ones. More recently we see murals being printed on metal sheets instead of being painted directly onto walls.
Some of the murals are now easily recognised by people from all over the world; these include Free Derry Corner and the International Wall on the Falls Road/Northumberland Street. These wall murals are now attracting huge numbers of visitors, with taxis and tour buses stopping to view them. More recently, wall murals have been painted to reflect current social issues: thanks to the Health Service during Covid; the condemnation of the greed of some countries concerning oil; the injustices in places like Israel and to the struggles of the smaller nations across the world.
Around 2012 I more or less stopped taking the photos of the wall murals. There were a few reasons for this. I had a growing family and with the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement fewer murals were appearing. The old working-class areas of the Falls Road and Shankill Road had long gone and with the new developments there were fewer gable walls to paint! I had also moved to an office-based job in BT, so I wasn’t out and about as much and subsequently I didn’t get to see any new murals that appeared. However, the main reason was that no one seemed interested in my wall mural photographs. Many of my own family had never seen them and subsequently they started to gather dust.
My sister worked in the Central Library of Belfast; she said that the library would be interested in getting copies of some of my photos. I believe there is a small collection there, no doubt they are gathering dust as well.
Things changed in 2020 when I was introduced by a mutual friend to someone who was very interested in the murals. He had a look at my collection and was very impressed by them. But then along came Covid and it was not until 2022 that I was able to work with Extramural Activity to get my photos on-line.
I retired in 2021 and have taken up photographing murals again. My collection is growing quickly.
– Paddy Duffy, Belfast, November 2022