CAN Research 1.3 Paul Seawright, Sectarian Murders


Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders.

  • How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at
  • What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
  • If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

In order to better understand the Sectarian Murder series and hopefully complete this research project more successfully than usual I will start by analysing one image using Terry Barrett’s contextual framework.

Seawright (1988)

Internal context

The image was taken during 1988 in Belfast by local photographer Paul Seawright.  In the background it shows a father and child casually playing on a park swing and is taken from the perspective of a small child on a playground roundabout.  Without further clarification the image is of little interest or significance. However, all the photographs in the sectarian murder series contained an explanatory caption. In the case of the roundabout image the caption reads as follows:

Saturday, 9 June 1973

A 60-year-old man was found shot three times in the head in Ballysillan Playground. The area showed signs of a struggle.

We now know that this image shows the place where 15 years earlier a man was brutally murdered during the Northern Ireland troubles.  The series’ captions were selected from original news reports of the incident and have been amended to remove any mention of the religious connections of perpetrators or victims. 

External context

The roundabout image is one of 12 photographs in a series known as sectarian murders (this name was not given to the series by the photographer) and has been exhibited widely around the world since it was first taken.

Original context

Seawright lived through the Northern Ireland Troubles and was obviously effected by them.  Leaving 15 years between the murderous and artistic acts allowed religious anonymity for and depoliticisation of each victim.  Just the case of being in the wrong place at the right time.

What is art? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power

The Tate gallery defines documentary photography as a style that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people places objects and events….  Seawright seems to agree.  He considers that the objective of documentary photography is to quickly and obviously provide viewers with the answers and information to allow them to rapidly understand the message being portrayed.  This is not his style.  He has a reductive style hoping to visually engage people sufficiently to stay with image to contemplate its deeper meaning.  Something not possible in the documentary style that provides all the answers itself.

It the context of the Sectarian Murder series the images in themselves would be meaningless but by captioning them in way he has Seawright provides the context for a deeper understanding of the image. Seawright calls this triangulation (Seawright, 2010) which he explains as the triangular connection between the image itself, the narrative and the viewer’s own perception.  He is inviting us, the viewer, to complete the photograph ourselves.  This is an idea I find intriguing and so yes I do agree with him.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

In the first sentence of his introductory chapter to The Story of Art Gombrich (Gombrich, 1978) states:

There really is no such thing as art.  There are only artists.

(Gombrich, 1978)

So on that basis the question is superfluous.  However in his essay Eric Newton (Newton, 2014) gives four reasons why photojournalism is art, namely:

Realism is art

Photojournalism is creative

Photojournalism withstands the test of time

Photojournalism moves us

However Anthony Tommasini (Tommasini, 2010) disagrees, he feels art must be one step removed from reality.  He considers images of the burning twin towers and the napalmed Vietnamese girl are not art but truth (Tommasini, 2001)

I disagree.  The iconic images of Tiananmen Square and Migrant Mother were originally shot with a documentary, photojournalistic  intention but they have endured as iconic influential works of art.  Perhaps then it is a question of taste and decency rather than specific content.


Gombrich, E. (1978). The story of art. 13th ed. New York: E.P. Dutton, p.4.

Newton, E. (2014). FOUR REASONS WHY GREAT PHOTOJOURNALISM IS ART. [online] Knight Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].

Seawright, P. (1988). Saturday, 9 June 1973. [image] Available at: [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Seawright, P. (2010). Voice Our Concern Artist’s Lecture 2010. Available at: [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Tommasini, A. (2001). Music; The Devil Made Him Do It. New York Times, [online] p.28. Available at: [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

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