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Arts & Culture

British Watchtowers

Exploring military observation as a means of control, Donovan Wylie's book examines the concept of vision as power in the architecture of contemporary conflict

Donovan Wylie

Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Golf 40. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2006. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

The watchtowers on the hilltops of South Armagh, a rural border region between the north and south of Ireland with a population that is almost entirely catholic-nationalist, were observation posts mounted with powerful camera technologies.

British soldiers, stationed below the towers in luxury trenches, portacabins sunk into the ground and covered with steel and concrete and recovered with topsoil, occupied the viewing platforms in pairs and in two-hour shifts. One would observe while the other documented. It has been said that they could read the speedometer dials of cars driving below, distinguish patterns on the wallpaper inside houses, see what was eaten for breakfast and hear what was said over the breakfast table.

 

Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Golf 40. West view. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2006. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Golf 650. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2005. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Golf 650. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2006. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Romeo 21A. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2006. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

The watchtowers are landmarks in the thirty-year conflict in and over Northern Ireland, euphemistically known as ‘The Troubles.’ Like the Long Kesh/Maze prison or the gable end murals in Belfast and Derry, they mark the site of conflict, define a frontline and are a component of an architecture of war, which has also become a representation of that war. The role of the watchtowers in the protracted negotiations over the process of demilitarisation, in which, to put it simply, their removal was traded for the decommissioning of Provisional Irish Republican Army weapons, is some testimony to their operational and symbolic significance.

For over a year Donovan Wylie photographed these towers. Working entirely from an elevated position, enabled by military helicopter, he created a systematic survey of the towers, their positions and perspectives within the landscape.

 

Donovan Wylie | British Watchtowers Romeo 12. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2005. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos