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Documentary Photography Review | 12th July 2018

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EXHIBITION REVIEW: Uncertain state: Photography and the Crisis in Ireland

Uncertain States - An exhibition at PhotoIreland 2013

Emptiness fills Uncertain State: Photography and the Crisis in Ireland. The group show, at Dublin’s Gallery of Photography, draws us towards what’s gone, to what’s been left behind.

With titles like 32 Residential Units and 18 Apartments in 2 Blocks, Eoin Ó Conaill’s sparse landscapes – stony grey soil and a telegraph pole – point to what might have been: by now, developers’ ambitions are forgotten and planning permission lapsed. In David Farrell’s series, An Archaeology of the Present, the photographer went searching for ‘anything dormant’, finding it all too easily: uninhabited new-build estates, a man who paid €14.5 million for a field, and ‘calendars in Cootehill stuck on June 2008’. Pete Smyth’s A View from the Dearth revisits a Tallaght council estate, photographing the same scenes as he did 21 years ago. An empty sofa; a solitary figure where before a group had stood: times have changed. Not least, notes Smyth, in how people react to being photographed. Back then, having a portrait taken was an occasion: ‘people held themselves differently’.

Today’s subjects face the camera with less formality, but with uncertainty. Paul Nulty documents his mother’s struggle to find home as a returned emigrant. The adolescents in Doug du Bois’ beautiful series, My last day at seventeen, seem defiant and hardened with the end of childhood – yet anxious, still. Du Bois’ works blend documentary and fiction, by recreating or staging ‘truthful’ scenes together with his subjects – an approach he describes as a sort of ‘creative non-fiction’ (more about his approach here).

The other photographers face reality more directly – sometimes uncomfortably so. Nulty’s mother, he says, grumbled to him: ‘I suppose everyone close up doesn’t look alright… why are you taking them so close up though?’ Kim Haughton places portraits of abuse victims, adults now, alongside images of where it happened. Uncomfortable for the subjects; uncomfortable for the viewer too, for these crime scenes look unremarkable: a terraced house, a country lane.

If this is a defining picture of our age, it’s a lonely one. A people who’ve always loved a bit of misery, it’s no surprise we Irish home in once again, in documenting this era, on the struggle and loss of migration, the abandoned houses, the scenes of violence. The traumatic pasts and the fearful futures. And underlying it all, the realisation of past mistakes. Farrell recalls his parents’ oft-repeated warning when the children’s games became too boisterous: ‘it’ll all end in tears’, they’d scold. If only society had listened.

But perhaps it is also a picture of a certain maturity. The land once marked for houses and business parks will not be developed: Ó Conaill’s series is entitled ‘Reprieve’, suggesting a welcome escape from crazed property development, a relief at returning to the natural order. Paddy Kelly’s Bogland works portray ordinary-looking locations once used as IRA training camps; thankfully his subject is history now, not news. Haughton’s courageous portraits reflect a hugely important shift in Irish society where covering up abuse is no longer acceptable. Uncertainty lurks, but at least we’re facing it now.

If you would like to visit the exhibition, visit the Galery of Photography, Ireland website, and for more information on the festival visit the PhotoIreland 2013 website.

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