Bordering on Brexit: The Belfast youth living under the shadow of an uncertain future

A major Brexit sticking point has been the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The border’s uncertain status has ramifications for communities that had lived in the heart of violent conflict for decades. Toby Binder’s book, 'Wee Muckers: Youth of Belfast', spotlights the day-to-day of young people living under the shadow of an unknown future.

Over three years, German photographer Toby Binder visited six Belfast neighbourhoods to document the daily lives of Protestant and Catholic youth. “I wanted to focus on Brexit and the neighbourhoods that had homogeneity in religion. These are communities that probably will be more affected by the economics of Brexit,” Toby says.

Through six trips, shooting on film, Toby earned the teenagers’ trust, each time returning to Belfast to share his progress and capture more images. Initially, finding subjects was a challenge. “I had several approaches. One was trying to get in touch with them by youth clubs or organisations, but I realised it’s just easier to speak to people in the street. That was one reason I focused on the young people because they’re just outside and don’t have anything to do. There is not much mobility. I met one old man from Ardoyne, and he told me he’d never left Belfast his whole life. If there’s no need, he doesn’t even leave the neighbourhood. Many people just stay there, between one or two streets.”

After a while the teenagers didn’t care that Toby was there. At first, they’d be doing drugs and wouldn’t want him to see. Later, they didn’t mind him seeing but didn’t want him shooting. Finally, they told him he could film them taking drugs. “I didn’t publish them because you have a responsibility to protect these kids. Sometimes they’d ask me to drive them somewhere and I knew they were going to pick up drugs so I told them, ‘no, I can’t do that. There’s a line I can’t cross.’ I’m close with many of them, I’m still in touch on Facebook, but I still have to keep this professional line.”

Toby’s own take on Brexit is much like most adults outside the UK. “It’s very difficult to judge the democratic decision of another country. You just have to respect it. I grew up in Germany and enjoyed all the advantages the European Union brought to us, so I don’t want to miss it. A lot of my English friends feel the same.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly reports that the region has the highest suicide rate in the UK. There are also higher levels of depression, higher antidepressant prescriptions rates and incidences of self-harm than the rest of the UK.  Mental health issues are quite common in post-conflict communities. For Belfast, austerity, a general lack of opportunities (including employment and youth services) and the uncertainty of Brexit, can’t help. As we were going to press on the issue, Toby let us know that one of the young girls in the book had just taken her own life.

But for the youth of Belfast, they’ve little to no perspective. Unemployment is high, prospects are low and the future is uncertain.  “There’s lots of unemployment and still enough violence,” Toby says, “so maybe if things became more violent they don’t really understand what that would look like. I think in daily life they don’t really care about it.”

He continues: “None of them experienced the Troubles, they were born after ’97. They have a hard life anyway, so most of them say, ‘It’s difficult for us nowadays, so what can be worse?’ Everybody is saying that young people are our future, but nobody really seems to care about them. That was something very interesting for me with the referendum. Most of the kids haven’t been allowed to vote because they’re underage. But they will have to carry the consequences. It’s difficult for us to understand what the effects will be.”

Girls using a shopping trolley to carry drinks to the water reservoir on Springfield Road in Clonard

Wee Muckers includes portraits showing every detail of subjects’ faces, details the local kids say identify them as Catholic or Protestant. He started to shoot these because one day a local told him you can identify if someone is from a Protestant or Catholic neighbourhood even though they dress exactly the same. “They say if you look closely at the face you can tell if it’s more Irish or English,” Toby says.

“When I brought the book back to Belfast in June it was one of these great moments,” he says. “I brought the book to the family of a Protestant couple, who were hard to find because I didn’t have the contacts for them. I really was looking for them all day – they sent me from here to there and to the aunt and to the grandmother and finally I found them. And the old grandmother had a look at the book and as she was going through it she said, ‘Oh wow, look at these kids. They‘re exactly the same.’ I thought then that maybe I’d done my job: for them to see that they were more similar than they’d ever thought.”

Toby Binder’s Wee Muckers: Youth of Belfast is out now, published by Kehrer Verlag.

Taken from HUNGER’s Listen Up issue. Click here for further information or to purchase. 

9 December 2019