In early 2012, Kate Trenerry boarded a bus at the edge of the old city of Jerusalem. She was on a mission to photograph walls.
One of those walls was the 430-mile-long Israel West Bank barrier, which cuts through the border town of Jabel Mukaber, dividing the Israeli and Palestinian settlements.
The borderlands of Jerusalem were Trenerry’s first stop in a three-part journey to sites of past conflict and present divide. Next, the American photographer walked both sides of the U.N. buffer zone that divides the Greek part of Cyprus from the Turkish-Cypriot region in the north. She also traced the Peace Walls that separate the Catholic and Protestant portions of the Northern Irish cities of Belfast, Lurgan, Londonderry, and Portadown. She spent a month in each country and plans to collect the photographs, titled “Walking Walls,” in a book.
“Outsiders tend to think of these places not as hot conflicts, but as sites of conflicts past,” Trenerry says. “Peace has been made, there are agreements in place: the Oslo Accords, the Good Friday Agreement, the 1974 ceasefire.” But aftermath, she says, is a whole different thing. “It’s hard work to maintain the peace—and foreigners aren’t interested, aren’t involved, aren’t funding it,” she adds.
That’s why walls continue to spring up in the wake of peace agreements. “They’re safety mechanisms to guard against the chaos of conflict in aftermath,” Trenerry says. In her photographs, she wanted to express “what division looks like on the ground. It’s not just a line on the map, or what people are talking about on the news. Visually, the walls are arresting; it’s intimidating to stand next to them.”
And they’re fed by the ideology around them before and after they’re built, she says. In Cyprus, Trenerry recalls walking along a rural road from the northern town of Lefka to the buffer zone. When she reached the town at the end of the buffer zone, two old women called out, “No going,” and mimed what Trenerry took to be a wall. “There’s a lot to be said about where the power of the barriers is,” she says. “Does it lie in their physical structure, or does it lie in the people who have internalized it?”
By the time Trenerry reached Belfast, her last stop, she was exhausted. Throughout her travels, “I was very often on edge,” she says. Most of the places she went, the people she had couchsurfed with refused to go; the memory of conflict pervaded the local consciousness in a way Trenerry says couldn’t comprehend.
Trenerry and her guide took a hike up into the Mourne Mountains, a half an hour south of Belfast. It was a beautiful spring day, and when they reached a pass, they came across a barricade. It was the Mourne Wall, built in the early 1900s to supply Belfast with water from the mountains. “It just reminded me: building walls is this ancient thing, and this one was so bucolic. Looking at it, it felt strange to me that we try apply these structures to such complex conflicts,” Trenerry says.
Walls can be functional, necessary, even beautiful. But in the fraught political landscapes in which they are built (or threatened to be built), they both flatten and exacerbate conflicts; they cut off vital lines of communication and exist as physical reminders of divisions that have yet to be overcome. By walking the walls, Trenerry hoped to break those barriers down.
“If you want to see situations changed, the most powerful thing you can do is travel and move across these walls,” she says. “There’s a connection between moving your body and moving your heart, and changing your mind.”