The Travellers and the Troubles by Jamie Johnson and John Day | Leica Gallery Boston

BY Michelle Lamuniere, March 1, 2024

On view through April 20, The Travellers and the Troubles includes two bodies of work that were made in Ireland but are separated by almost 50 years. John Day was in Belfast in the summer of 1972, while Jamie Johnson made several trips to the country between 2017 and 2023. The dominant thread connecting the black-and-white photographs by each artist is their focus on children: both Day and Johnson capture their perseverance and resilience in the face of poverty, racism, and political turmoil.

Jamie Johnson has spent her career photographing children around the world and has recently focused on the Irish Travellers, an indigenous ethnic group that likely separated from, and ultimately became genetically distinct from, the larger Irish population as early as the mid-1600s. Travellers live as outsiders to society and are subject to discrimination and stereotyping, something Johnson hopes to counter through her images. Horse fairs and other festivals bring Travellers together to honor their cultural traditions, and Johnson took many of her photographs at such events. They depict a community that is living in both the past and the present. An image of a young girl called Dolli dressed in a frilly costume and standing in the open door of an old-fashioned caravan is paired with one of a group of boys playing with a miniature pony in front of a modern-day RV. Good Fortune (2023) captures two freckled brothers with long curly hair wearing the same uniform of black sleeveless t-shirt and khaki shorts. They stand in front of an RV with graphic signage promoting accurate crystal-ball readings and claims that various athletes and actors, including several fictional characters from the British soap opera Coronation Street, have had their palms read there. 

Jamie Johnson, Biddy, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Leica Gallery Boston

Throughout Johnson’s portraits, there is also evidence of children growing up too fast. In Kittens, Cigarettes, and Gucci (2018), the ages of three girls with grown-up purses, jewelry, and a fake cigarette are betrayed by the stains of sweets at the corners of their mouths. In Firestarter (2017), a boy who looks to be no more than six or seven years old wears a gold hoop earring and a gold chain and holds a lighter in his hand while, abstracted in the background, a fire rages.

John Day, Boys with burning car in an abandoned soccer field between the Ardoyne and Bone areas in Belfast, August 1972. Courtesy the artist and Leica Gallery Boston

John Day’s photographs focus on a specific historical moment – the summer of 1972, the most deadly and dangerous year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As a college student and journalist armed with a used Leica, he spent three months living in a Catholic neighborhood in Belfast known as the Bone, where, as Day recalls in his statement, “the residents had very little but lived with grace, strength, and tremendous generosity.” He photographed boys playing beside a pond or stream littered with abandoned domestic objects including a partly submerged bike or buggy wheel that is made whole by its reflection in the water. In another image, a smiling girl returning from the store with a soda and a pack of cigarettes recalls Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photograph of a boy with two oversized wine bottles on a Paris street.

John Day, Two Catholic Girls on an Andersontown St. at Dusk, July 10, 1972. Courtesy the artist and Leica Gallery Boston

Other photographs by Day depict a group of boys with a soccer ball standing in front of a burning car, and community members of all ages mourning at the funeral of Seamus Cassidy, an Irish Republican Army volunteer who was shot by a British Army sniper while sitting in his car. Day was present on July 21st – Bloody Friday – when a car bomb, one of 22 planted across the city by the IRA, killed six people at the Oxford Street Bus Depot in Belfast. This experience ultimately inspired him to study medicine, and after working as a doctor for 40 years, he returned to his images from that fateful summer. Day and Johnson’s photographs honor children, but ultimately remind us that discrimination, violence, and tragedy affect us all.