Portraits of the Irish Leaving Home - documenting the departure of Irish emigrants
Photographer David Monahan has been powerfully documenting the recent wave of Irish emigration in photographs taken just before their subjects’ departures to different corners of the world.
“It is my wish to photograph people of all nationalities, who have made the decision to move from Ireland for economic reasons[:] in and around the city, juxtaposed with landscapes that are significant to their pasts. If that sounds like you or if you know of somebody who is about to move, please bring my proposal to their attention.
“I want to make these works monumental, to show those depicted in a true heroic spirit. For after all, they are making a huge jump into the void of uncertainty and this needs to be commemorated – perhaps like never before…”
So began David Monahan's “Leaving Dublin” project: with a blog post, one year ago. The 47-year-old photographer has lived in Dublin his whole life and has seen friends and family members depart from the city throughout the years. Some have returned, but many have not.
Still more are leaving now – part of the dramatic surge in post-boom emigration that began in 2009. The statistics, as we know, are staggering. A January report by the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute estimated that 100,000 people – more than two percent of the country's population – will leave Ireland between April 2010 and April 2012. That averages to about 1,000 people a week.
From the mass exodus of The Great Hunger to the significant population losses of the 1950s and 80s, Ireland is no stranger to emigration. But that doesn't make what is happening now any easier. The vast majority of those who are leaving are young, highly skilled and educated, but can't find work. They see an Ireland lacking in stability and opportunity and, in the eyes of some, lacking a social, political and financial consciousness. In addition to needing work, many are fed-up with the way the banks and politicians let the nation down, and are looking to broaden their horizons elsewhere. There's a sense of dismay that emigration is on the steady rise again, since many thought that it had become a thing of Ireland's past. At the same time, there's a feeling of pride and purpose; of having made a difficult but necessary choice; of setting out for someplace new. While the figures plainly convey the volume of the current wave of departures, they cannot do much in terms of capturing this complicated spirit.
This is where Monahan comes in. A year ago, one of the photographer’s friends and her boyfriend were leaving Ireland for Australia. “He'd been out of work for a year and a half, she'd been out of work for about nine months,” Monahan recounted in a recent interview with Irish America. “They weren't doing too well here,” he continued, “so they decided to go to the Australian embassy and quick as you like they had tickets booked and they were ready to go. I thought it would be nice to take a photograph of her before she left town, in a place that meant something to her.”
His friend turned out to be too shy to pose, but the thought remained in Monahan's head. “I had a good sense of what needed to be done and how it would look…it was too good of an idea, too important of a project to let it lie.”
So he didn't. He set up a mock shoot and posted the resulting photograph online, along with his initial call for participants.
Since then, he's done 30 shoots with individuals and families who have left Dublin. The result is a body of work that triumphs at communicating both gravity and strength, resignation and purpose, wistfulness and hope. All of the photographs adhere to what has become Monahan's signature style for the series: dark, painstakingly lit images of soon-to-be emigrants, always with a slightly battered antique suitcase nearby.
Interested subjects contact Monahan with two or three possible locations, which he visits to examine the visual and technical possibilities. Once a site has been chosen, Monahan and his rotating crew of five assistants head out to meet the poser and begin the shoot, all of which take place at night. On a practical level, this helps ensure that they don't draw too much attention from passersby and that there aren't any disturbances. Artistically, this allows Monahan to create the distinctive lighting and mood consistent throughout all of the images. With his Hasselblad H3D 50 camera, the photographer takes a few frames of his subject, and then does additional background shots of the location. All of this is accomplished using only one light source, which Monahan explains gives him “the possibility of almost painting with it. You can place it here, you can place it there, and you can light things you like and let things you don't particularly want to light go dark if you wish. It gives you the chance to fine-tune the shot.” Back in his studio, he then pieces the different elements of the scene together in Photoshop until he has one final composite image, which he posts on his blog along with a brief story about the person the photo depicts and the journey he or she is about to embark on.
Even a cursory glance at the series shows that Monahan has stuck to his initial aim of making the photographs “monumental;” of showing “those depicted in a true heroic spirit.” The compassion in Monahan’s artistic vision is palpable. Though the images are dark and shadowy, they cannot be described as meek or melancholy. The subjects sit proudly and contemplatively in their chosen locations, usually perched on a suitcase Monahan uses as a recurring prop in every frame.
The exact age of the suitcase is something of a mystery, but Monahan does know that it was last stamped at the Tilbury Docks in England in 1961. Much more than a mere prop, the suitcase is a tangible artifact and a visual cue connecting Ireland's previous periods of emigration with its current one.
Indeed, for Monahan, the suitcase cuts to the emotional core of this project, since it was last used by one of his many family members who have moved to England. He is quick to add that he's “not trying to be sentimental by using it;” rather, that its purpose is to “make a little statement that it is part of the past and [that] this cycle has happened over and over and over again. The unfortunate thing, the sadness for me, is that I believed that particular cycle had finished, as did a lot of people. But very, very quickly it [began again] and people have been leaving at a heavy pace ever since. It's quite saddening that that phenomenon has re-occurred, but it's also nice to know and acknowledge, by the inclusion of the suitcase, that this has occurred before. And I suppose what we're striving for is to create a situation where it doesn't happen again.”
Though he readily admits it was not his initial intention, within the larger scheme of the project the places in the photographs have become almost as prominent and important as the people. The locations vary greatly. They've been to “the hills on the outskirts of Dublin, looking back on the lights of the city; the sea ports; in the city center, right in the middle; and in suburbia.”
In this sense, the photos are not just portraits of the young emigrants, but also of contemporary Ireland. This is an element of the project that evolved over time. “Once you start talking to people and they make the choice of a place to sit, you start getting the impression that you're moving from place to place, that you're covering the entire city from pillar to post, really.
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