Belfast Telegraph

Photographer's bid to capture 'the whole story' behind Eleventh Night


By Claire McNeilly

They say some Northern Ireland people are infatuated with bonfires, but one Polish man has taken his particular obsession to another level entirely.

Photojournalist Mariusz Smiejek has spent the last seven years snapping thousands of pictures of the huge wooden pyres as part of an investigation into our post-conflict society.

Originally from Gniezno, the 39-year-old photography tutor made Belfast his home in 2011, and since then he has been documenting the transition of everyday life here.

But it's his focus on our bonfires - the massive turrets that can stand 40m tall - that is particularly noteworthy in the run-up to the annual Twelfth of July celebrations.

So what is it about Northern Ireland that so captivates this award-winning National Geographic-trained photographer, who is hoping to turn his project into an exhibition?

"I discovered that the world's media isn't particularly interested in Northern Ireland, apart from once a year - the run-up to The Twelfth," he said.

"You always see pictures of parades, then the occasional rioting and the trouble on the streets.

"And at the beginning I photographed that too, but then I really wanted to do something different."

Mariusz lived in England and spent two years travelling around Europe before eventually settling here, after commuting between London and Belfast throughout 2010.

By coming here initially, he followed in the footsteps of his ex Aleksandra (43), an NGO worker/mediator and the mother of his four-year-old son Isaac.

He stayed here for his son, and for his project, which he has been devoted to ever since.

"People always ask me why I decided to come to a place as difficult as Belfast," he said.

"But I trained with the best photographers and I wanted to become involved in a challenging project.

Everyday life in the shadow of the bonfire at Highfield, captured by Polish photojournalist Mariusz Smiejek

"I remember seeing the news when I lived in Poland in the Eighties and Nineties and about bombs in Belfast and the IRA and the Troubles, and I wanted to learn more about what was going on in Northern Ireland."

Aleksandra took him to the areas she thought might be of interest and that recce spawned a project that he has now been focusing on for seven years.

"When I came I was shocked to find that Northern Ireland had separate areas and divided societies; I didn't expect that," he said.

He teamed up with Greater Shankill Alternatives (part of Restorative Justice) three years ago, which has allowed him "to meet the people behind the bonfires led and run by the community".

"I wanted to meet the wood collectors, the bonfire builders... I wanted to learn the whole story," he said. "I saw how every year, the fact that bonfires exist is so difficult for the Irish community. I also saw that there aren't very many tourists who watch the bonfires. They are mostly in what the media calls no-go areas."

North Belfast-based Mariusz says his personal project - The Bonfires Of Belfast - is a study of "ordinary people who want to celebrate their culture".

And he says he was given "a warm welcome" by those involved in the Protestant community, while he also met young people from the Catholic community who "want a taste of the bonfires".

"My project is about showing who the people behind the bonfires are; what they are doing and why they are building these bonfires," said Mariusz. "I want to tell the story behind it by taking very personal pictures... of people in their houses, of the children. I want to see who these people are, how the bonfires are built, why they are built and explore the history and story behind them."

As a "foreign photographer", Mariusz acknowledges that he has been given unlimited access to a community that may not otherwise welcome outsiders with open arms.

"I don't take sides; I want to be an observer," said Mariusz, who funds his study by teaching at his private academy in Belfast, offering courses and workshops in an introduction to photography, portraits and street photography. He began five years ago and now has 300 students in the UK and Ireland. He travels to London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Sicily for work.

His bonfire project has been centred on the greater Shankill and the Village area of south Belfast, and he said he's keen on the differences in approach between paramilitary organisations' "districts".

"I have a good working relationship with former paramilitaries; I'm very comfortable with them," he said.

"I'm focused on post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland. There's a lot more that can be learned after a war than during it."

For more information on Mariusz's work and photography courses, visit

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