Portraits of the Irish Leaving Home - documenting the departure of Irish emigrants


“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.