Book Review: Erika Hanna’s Snapshot Stories: Visuality, Photography, and the Social History of Ireland, 1922 – 2000. Reviewed by: Dr Aimée Walsh.
Erika Hanna’s Snapshot Stories: Visuality, Photography, and the Social History of Ireland, 1922 – 2000 offers an excellent new approach to photography and Irish Studies through the study of the peripheries of produced images. Through a careful exploration of the social and cultural contexts borne out of Irish society, which encompasses a variety of erasures of everyday existences of Irish people, Hanna’s work unravels these hidden histories through an impressive historical range of subjects. Amongst others, the book covers social contexts, from an examination of photograph albums c.1992 – 1950, to a careful consideration of the role of the image in social justice as exemplified during trials against state violence during the ‘Troubles’ conflict in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998). This is in addition to an exploration of the role of documentary photographers in creating pictorial testimonies of those marginalised, through poverty and violence, within Irish society between 1970 – 1995. Hanna offers an excellent breadth of scope in mapping this unchartered territory in Ireland’s post-partition ‘visual landscape’, which amounts to a new way of seeing, and further, new understandings of Irish history.
Through the ‘snapshot’ polaroid images of histories, Hanna considers the construction of the self in relation to social histories in Ireland. The marketing campaign of Kodak cameras in the 1930s and 1940s and the lifestyle the photography brand marketed are central to the understanding of the images produced. The proliferation of ‘picture perfect’ beach scenes and images of happiness were constructed in direct reflection of these marketing campaigns. However, Hanna’s work carefully unpicks these compositions, using correspondence such as letters, diaries, and even tribunals, to piece together life beyond the image. In doing this, the author highlights the histories and experiences of the ordinary person. In particular, the exploration of the photo albums of Dorothy Stokes challenges these cookie-cutter constructed identities. As a prolific chronicler of her own life through the use of images, Stokes photographs her relationships with friends and two (male) partners extensively. The images of herself and her female friends serve to unsettle gender dynamics through ‘photographs where they discarded all conventions of feminine presentation or propriety’ (26). Instead of images which focus on the domestic and nuclear family, Stokes’s photographs celebrate her enjoyment of single-life and socialising with her female friends.
The crux of this mapping of social history is the issue of visuals, that is to say, that which is shown on camera, and that which is masterfully obscured, removed, and hidden. Hanna argues that is it not only the visual which is of significance but that which is invisible: ‘There are stories too in the things which are hidden and missing: photographs ripped out, images cropped, and faces without names’ (1). Indeed, it is of interest what is not shown in Dorothy Stokes’s albums: explicitly, her sexual relationship with a woman which spanned many years. This lesbian relationship was not photographed at all, which sits in stark comparison with the many images taken of her two male partners. Bisexuality was beyond the confines of her prolific documentation of her life. The sadness of this social context of homophobia is striking, and the excavation of these lived experiences is of the utmost importance. Hanna writes that: ‘Often stories of ‘hidden’ Irish histories and ‘invisible’ people are presented in the passive voice. Using photography allows us de-naturalize these processes, to reinsert actors into these sentences, and to think harder about processes and practices of revealing and concealing in Irish life’ (6). Hanna’s work on these ‘hidden histories’ of the ordinary draws these moments out of the mainstream historical records. It cannot be understated how important this is. It is through this research that the revealing/concealing is paramount not only for the photographer/photographed but also for Irish society more broadly.
Another interesting focus within Hanna’s research is that of the image as a catalyst for social change. As part of this she examines the work of feminist documentary photographer Joanne O’Brien who captured images which ranged from ‘political radicalism’ to those which explored the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Specifically, the photographer documented Irish women who, like herself, had migrated to Britain. Her images chronicled the era of political turbulence as a result of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ conflict. She took photographs of activist women on picket lines at Westminster, who supported the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol who were subjected to gendered violence in the form of strip-searches. O’Brien extended this interest in capturing the experiences of those affected by colonialist violence in Northern Ireland through her work with the relatives of those who were murdered by the British army during Bloody Sunday in 1972. The photographer interviewed and photographed relatives at the sites where their loved ones had died. Hanna writes of this that O’Brien ‘[used] photography’s purchase on time to reframe the event not as a ‘matter of minutes’ but rather as the gruelling decades which had changed the lives of many people’ (220). Further, Hanna discusses the importance of photography in gaining justice for the Bloody Sunday victims. Of the Scarman and Widgery tribunals, the author details the central role in which documentary photographers played in through testimonial images: ‘photographers negotiated their equivocal role as bystander and participant’ in the pursuit of justice of those photographed during the violence (159).
The work begs the question of what is chosen to be presented through photography, but crucially, what is not shown through digital archives? There are layers of knowledge to be gleaned from assessing the photograph as a cog in the machinery of social histories of Ireland. These traditionally unexplored layers range from the ephemeral scrawling of names, dates, and descriptions on the reverse of images, to images which have been later obscured. Case studies examined within these beyond the image frameworks also include images used in social justice during the Bloody Sunday Tribunals as well as personal histories in the photograph albums situated within the home.
Further, Hanna’s work is significant now more than ever as it speaks to the function of the photograph in social justice movements, which takes on a sharp focus in the current climate of Black Lives Matter, when the camera is a means of holding those in power to account. It is in this way that Hanna’s work is not only an exceptional piece of research for the current political moment, but also a blueprint for the approach of peripheral, ephemeral histories of those marginalised. The author offers a multifaceted approach to the history of post-partition Ireland which calls for those who are marginalised, forgotten, and written out of history, to be seen. This work is ultimately about transitions: that of what was once invisible being made visible; that of the ‘then’ of the photograph and the ‘now’ in which we study the image; and, importantly, of the dark recesses of social history, the poverty, abuse, and traumas, which we can learn from.
Aimée Walsh has recently completed her PhD, titled ‘Republican Feminism(s): Revolutionary Anti-Colonial Feminist Writing and Testimonies from the North of Ireland, 1975 – 1986’. In 2019, she was awarded a Postgraduate Bursary from the British Association for Irish Studies for her research. You can contact her via Twitter: @aimeemwalsh