“We never really thought about it,” says high school student Brooke Moorehead when asked to describe her feelings about the Maze Long Kesh site where political prisoners were once held during the Troubles.

The controversial prison, which was closed permanently in 2000, was built on the site of the former Royal Air Force station of Long Kesh on the outskirts of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. But despite living on the Old Warren Estate, a community about a mile from the site, Brooke and her friends knew little about its multi layered history and heritage.

All that changed when the 18-year-old joined 24 other young people from the housing estate on a National Lottery-funded project called Inform, Transform and Re-imagine. Backed by a £43,700 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the group spent a year researching and photographing their own community as well as the Maze/Long Kesh site.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

The young people spoke to local historians and were taught how to use digital cameras by Belfast Exposed, an organisation that organises community photography projects. They learned that the 347-acre Long Kesh site was home to a Royal Air Force base during World War II and visited the heritage collection at two former WWII hangars run by the Ulster Aviation Society. 

Another visit took them to the war graves and memorials at All Saints' Parish Church where World War II aviators from New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the UK are buried side by side.

The resulting photographs, accompanied by the participants’ observations about their surroundings, were exhibited at Lisburn’s Civic Centre last October. The young people's work will also be published in a book – a social history of the Old Warren Estate – that is being issued by The Resurgam Trust, the community organisation that ran Inform, Transform and Re-imagine in conjunction with Co-operation Ireland, a leading peace-building charity that works to promote and encourage interaction, dialogue, and practical collaboration between the peoples of Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

As well as boosting their awareness, knowledge and self-confidence and learning some valuable photography skills, the 25 students gained a fresh perspective on their own community and the sprawling site on their doorstep.

“We didn’t want the focus to be on the prison, we wanted to capture the bigger picture,” says Adrian Bird, director of the Resurgam Trust. “What came out of this is that there’s a rich history and culture in our communities that isn’t necessarily political. Yes, the prison is part of the story, but there are many other elements. They [the students] took ownership of the scheme – these are their words and pictures about this place.”

Brooke, a student at Lisnagarvey High School, has flourished since the project came to an end in October last year. She has joined the board of The Resurgam Trust and is playing an active role in its Youth Bank, a grant scheme run by young people for young people.

She is also involved in a new bike tour scheme run by The Resurgam Trust that will see young people from the community leading tours through the Long Kesh site using 14 bicycles.

Jack Pearl, 18, who also took part in the Inform, Transform and Re-imagine initiative, says the joint once-a-week sessions with Co-operation Ireland did wonders for the teenagers’ self-confidence as well as teaching them some new skills. “There were a few shy people who didn’t talk much at first and they opened up,” he says. “It was because we were all together for so long. We got to know each other and learned how to work together.”