Belfast, Shankill. Bonfire preparations at Conway Street.

The Two Sides of Belfast’s Peace Wall

Photos by Toby Binder

German photographer Toby Binder has spent the last decade documenting the lives of British teenagers in working-class communities.

At least, in between projects that’ve seen him photographing the mineral trade in Eastern Congo, abandoned ‘child witches’ of Nigeria, socially excluded Roma people of Hungary, the child labour trade in Bolivia, and the last of the snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan—to name just a few. Drawn to the frontline of crisis situations and the daily lives of marginalised communities, Toby’s work is patient and intimate, without being pervasive.

Belfast, Carrick Hill. Brendan behind a police line at Trinity Street.

After the UK’s recent Brexit referendum, Toby decided to head to Belfast; a city where, despite years of relative peace, tensions still lie on either side of ‘Peace Wall’ barriers separating Catholics and Protestants. Spending time on both sides of the wall (split into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) Toby found two feuding communities suffering from the exact same problems: unemployment, drug crime and violence. Two decades on from the peace agreements that ended 30 years of warring known as The Troubles, the wounds are still raw, and Toby worries that Brexit could inflame old tensions and affect open border policies between the two sides.

Over the course of a few years, he spent time photographing the young people within rival communities that share a city, a wall, and the same social issues, which he aims to publish in new book Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast. To bring his body of work to life in the form of a hardcover photo book, Toby is relying on donations over on his Kickstarter page, which is currently just shy of reaching its target. I caught up with Toby to ask him more about his time in Ireland, gaining trust, and why its a book for the people, below.

Belfast, Shankill. Boy turning away from garbage set on fire at a wasteland on Caledon Street.

Why do you think you’ve been drawn to documenting marginalised communities throughout your career?

As a journalist, you’re always watching out for realities and stories you believe are important to bring into the light and for me, I find this in underprivileged groups. Of course, it helps to have empathy and understanding for the people you work with; I couldn’t work with the people in these communities if I didn’t. I want to use the opportunities that I have as a photographer to engage with people and bring about a little more understanding and solidarity.

Belfast, Clonard. View from Clonard monastry towards the “Peace Wall” and Shankill neighbourhood.

Your photo book will feature six chapters taken from six different Belfast neighbourhoods. Which of these do you think had the greatest impact on your project?

In the book, I’ve focused on photos from both Protestant and Catholic communities (Clonard and Carrick Hill on the Catholic side, Shankill, Highfield, Village and Sandy Row on the Protestant side). The immediately adjacent neighbourhoods of Shankill and Clonard that are separated by one of the most imposing ‘Peace Walls’, are the most populated and became a centre of the project. The most significant impact actually became the fact that all these neighbourhoods are really close together and I could move freely between them several times a day—something that most citizens of these areas won’t do (and haven’t done for a long time) because it’s really dangerous.

Belfast, Clonard. Saturday night at the water reservoir.

How did the young people of Belfast react to you spending time in their neighbourhoods, taking their photos? 

I always explain what the project is about to begin with, and most of them liked the idea of showing their daily life. Even though I was afraid they wouldn’t understand why I wanted to capture life on both sides of ‘the wall’, it wasn’t a problem at all and they actually really supported me a lot. As I was shooting on film I couldn’t show them the photos immediately but each time when I came back, I brought some prints from the trip before. Many of the kids I could follow for the duration of the two years, as they still live in the same places they did when I began this project. This continuity helped to gain a lot of trust.

Belfast, Shankill. Megan and Joshua.

How would you describe some of the most noticeable differences between communities on either side of the Peace Wall?

The idea of the book was to show that these two communities who seem to have irreconcilable differences, are more similar than they’d both like to admit. While they still stick to their own symbols of their identity and tradition, they wear the same clothes, have the same haircuts, listen to the same music, drink the same beer, take the same drugs and often the same worries such as violence, unemployment, social discrimination and therefore, lack of prospects.

Belfast, Carrik Hill. Scooter in a barbed wire.

Have any particular individual’s stories really stuck in your mind?

There is not a particular story of a single person, it’s more the common experience that Belfast-born writer and author of The Good Son, Paul McVeigh, describes in the following way: “It made me realise that poverty, political strife and living in fear was what we had in common. And The Troubles has become this hugely enveloping, shared experience that binds those generations as much as it divides. I realised I had more in common with poor Belfast Protestants who had experienced The Troubles than Catholics who held the same passport as me in the South of Ireland.“

Belfast, Highfield. The girl in the flower dress.

What is one of the most unexpected things that you learnt from spending time in Belfast?

I sometimes feel that the more I come to Northern Ireland, the less I understand about the conflict. There are so many incomprehensible facets and individual destinies, as well as fears for the future that sometimes seem to paralyse everything. But above all, it surprises me how friendly and open here almost all of the people are… considering that for nearly 30 years, it was one of the most violent places with the most killings in recent European history. I remember once meeting an old Irish man who told me, “Oh yes, we’re friendly to strangers. We only kill each other.”

Belfast, Shankill. Boy playing football in front of a Union Jack painted on the wall.

Why is it important for Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast to be created through this Kickstarter project?

When the idea came up to do a book, I initially tried to get funding from a few sponsors: foundations, political groups, companies, etcetera. But they all rejected the idea because the concept of the book was “too political” for them; nobody wanted links to a project dealing with the daily life of working-class teenagers and the potentially negative effects that Brexit could have on their lives. My work is never biased, purely observational, but I can see how this project could be seen as pro-European. In the end, though, I personally believe that solutions are made together, not against one another… especially if we face the same problems. This is a book about people and for people, so it’ll be great to get the book funded by the crowd.

Support print! Go throw some money Toby’s way over on his Kickstarter page here to ensure the Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast story gets told.

Belfast, Sandy Row. Church at McAdam Park.
Belfast, Shankill. Group of boys on a wasteland at Lanark Way.
Belfast, Highfield. “Strength, Respect, Loyality”

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