Donovan Wylie’s anxiety

I took a day off from the mad MA scramble yesterday to catch the Architecture of Conflict conference in Bradford, part of the Ways of Looking festival currently running in the city. There were a couple of particularly interesting talks, the main one for me being Donovan Wylie, who photographed Belfast’s infamous Maze Prison before its demolition, and has who has spent recent years documenting military watchtowers in the Northern Irish borderlands and in Afghanistan.

Wylie, who joined Magnum when he was only in his early 20s, was a really engaging speaker – I appreciated his humbleness and his willingness to reveal his vulnerabilities. He told us that about a decade ago he gave up photography. A self-taught photographer, he had never really studied the history of the medium but when he finally got round to it he ended up getting so tied up in knots over arguments about ethnics, representation, power and all the rest of it that he took almost no photos for two years. In the midst of this professional paralysis, Imperial War Museum approached him to ask whether he would be willing to take on the Maze Prison commission (Wylie is from Belfast and the child of a mixed Catholic-Protestant marriage). And he said no….

Anyway he eventually changed his mind and after lots of agonising he found a way to make the project work, and he describes it as a cathartic process. And from there he has found a voice and style which works for him for the time being. But the interesting – and reassuring thing – for me was that even someone who could outwardly be described as successful and established, a member of Magnum Photos no less, can become, as he put it, “riddled with anxiety” over the ethnical complexities and nuances of particular projects and photography in general. I’m in good company.