Monumentality on Photographic Paper

It is odd to be thinking of photographic portraits on heavy paper as monumental. But that is exactly what David Monahan has achieved in his stunning art photo documentary series, Leaving Dublin, on display at the Immigration Museum until 25 August 2013.  Viewing it should not be  put  on a long finger. It’s the sort of exhibition you might find yourself being drawn to again and again.

Monumentality comes from the gravitas of these studies. When I think of Irish exiles, I think of those I was exposed to in the 1950s. It was not uncommon for them to cry whenever they thought of themselves as exiles, and they did often. Nuns who probably thought the little kids wouldn’t notice. My grandfather cried about Ireland so consistently from 1916 until he died in 1948 that we never learnt anything about his family, even the place he migrated from under what we imagined to have been terrifying and conflicted circumstances: ‘If I had stayed, I’d have had to pick up a gun’ is what his wife and children were told, enigmatically. Just what he meant (Irish wars, Somme?) died with him because of the tears, and his family’s reluctance to exacerbate the hurt.

Monahan’s sitters are very different, thank goodness. They live in a vastly more interconnected world when a big jet is affordable, eventually, and the expectation of return, if desired, is much higher. Indeed, one of his sitters lasted a day in a middle Eastern compound wearing neck to knee and returned to Ireland to redouble her efforts to find work as a teacher. The courage of a woman who will take a risk and undo it when necessary has to be applauded. Nonetheless, the gravitas sits heavily on these emigrés. It inheres in the risky step of leaving a known and usually loved place to take  risks in a very different country and culture.  And the gravitas expresses itself in a variety of emotions: sadness, rage, torment, reluctance, eagerness. What most speaks, though, are not faces close to tears at all, or the faces of victims, but faces that are resolute. They have made decisions and will enact them. Agents, not victims. David Monahan would say they were ‘heroic’ and that’s not too big a word for them.

I spoke to David Monahan about his artistic choices the day before the opening. I assumed there must have been some close personal experience of emigrés, and, of course, there was. He says he was unaware of it at the time he began in the ’80s: a professional photographer, he originally simply sought to record a leaving photo of his wife’s second cousin. Not deterred by her reluctance (shyness, she claimed) to sit, he sought others, and word of mouth brought him in the end around 120 sitters and some 79 images, and the work is not yet finished. As the project gained sitters and momentum, he realized progressively that he’d been exposed to emigration all his life. It was only when it ended in the 1990s for a period of a few years he realized it wasn’t a necessary condition of life, or as he put it ‘a national pastime’. So, when it began again, after the Celtic Tiger was violently despatched,  the realisation that it had gone on for generations in his own family. He was one of four, and the only one to remain in Dublin; only one in five of his mother’s siblings remained after a flood that destroyed a bridge, a whole street and his mother’s community who precipitately left for foreign places. Only an uncle and an aunt remained from her big family. Half of his father’s even bigger family of seven remained in Ireland. There were few cousins. The ’nineties, with their ebb and flow of mobile, well-educated migrants, were the exception.

This series of portraits gains much of its power because it documents, and arises out of, a social history. Individually, they are stunning. The whole, though, is much more than the parts, or even the sum of the parts.  The photo that will perhaps stay with me longest is of a young woman who selected as her background two huge street posters, quite ugly in themselves and almost bigger than herself, that proclaimed: ‘IN A WORLD FUL OF SHAME AND REGRET DO SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF’.  The banner personalises the political; the personal becomes the unwanted outcome of the political. It is political not only for sitters but also the creator.  As a group, the migrants are diverse: educated young women, confident in their skin, going abroad in the spirit of the ‘gap year’, making ‘lifestyle’ choices (David Monahan has much to say in his blog on this trivialisation of the issue of migration), but there are others that are very poignant: a little family group where the wife is heavily pregnant and unconsciously cups her foetal child in a protective hand. One knows she will find the loss of family a source of grief as she and baby find their way somewhere long away from their support network. I’m fascinated too by how representative this group is of different levels of Irish society. They tell much about their affiliations in how they choose to dress, usually in everyday clothes, to express their feelings about leaving.

The devices used to bind these works into the artistic entity it is were many. The theatrical lighting is often spectacular  – one arcs up a tree, and another a series of trees, all felled since the photo was take. The artificiality of the lights mean that there is nowhere to hide for these raw, emotional faces, and they seem translucent in the light of their decision to leave.  Secondly, they are all night-time shots, which further increases the sense of vulnerability. Their generally unsmiling outward gaze can be quite unnerving: they do not serve the photographer; they serve their vision of the future being directed to the side and front. All are seated on or with the same battered brown leather suitcase, a detail that resonates in the Immigration Museum which frequently features cases, portmanteaus, trunks and suitcases of all shapes and sizes.  It is an object that serves to link these photos with the earlier streams of migration, especially the post-Famine and post-World War II influxes into Australia. These unifying elements are a brave testament to David Monahan’s vision. It is fascinating that after the first few sitters, the word of mouth process he relies on to draw new sitters means that he no longer needs to give instructions about the ‘look’ of the series, because the sitters themselves know it from one another. A truly collaborative arts practice.

Monahan’s method was to invite his sitters to choose a locale they loved and wanted to remember and to theatrically light it. As I passed around the exhibition on opening night, I eavesdropped on conversations which were full of nostalgia.  These locales often had symbolic experience for others as well as the sitters. Sometimes they are exquisitely painful juxtapositions, like the image of a couple in front of what looks like a fun fair (but is in fact the Grand Canal), or the image of a young man leaving a very comfortable upper middle-class home. Comments on the blog make it clear that there are many different reasons the urban background in these photos speaks to people, and it will be interesting to see how Australian viewers read them, and hopefully they too will make their contributions to the blog, The Lilliputian, which is wonderfully rich in personal stories, commentary and even, at times, technical detail about shots and lighting. The responses from Dubliners and others with an interest in different aspects of the project adds much to one’s understanding of the pieties of place in contemporary Dublin; outsiders may well respond to the more conventional streetscapes of a Dublin of the past.

It is astonishing to think that this body of work, apart from the collaboration with the sitters, from beginning to end is in the firm control of David himself. The impeccable 1m x 1.3m prints are produced on a machine which necessitated extending his house. His family talk of the sitters, many of whom they have not met, as if they are family members. That’s a tribute to the compassion of the man behind the lens. They know them up close and personally and have come to love them unconditionally.

It is clear Monahan is documenting something large, something culturally agonizing, a movement inexorably outwards of talent and raw feeling that will materially affect life for the stayers in Ireland for more generations. One can only hope that this is the generation that can truly return enriched by their broadening cultural perspectives. They know too how  the educational advantages they have enjoyed will certainly enrich their host countries, especially this one, Australia, a favoured destination of the Irish.

The term ‘economic refugee’ has become a slur, a term of abuse, in the Australian national discourse in recent years.This magnificent exhibition may put the heart into some rethinking of the categories that we operate from, in thinking about refugees. The humanity of Monahan’s sitters is frankly and freely for observation in these photos. The reasons for their migration choices is sometimes to be read in them too.

There are many reasons for seeking a new life elsewhere.  Putting bread on the table may be less dramatic than fear of being shot, but the outcome can be similar, and the impact on self-esteem life-threatening. One has to admire the courage of deciding to throw oneself on the mercy of strangers. It might also lead some viewers to think why it is the arrival of well-educated people ‘like us’ causes not a ripple but indeed an open, warm-hearted embrace. Indeed, our hope is that  might stay. But we’d understand a different choice if they needed to go home?

Frances Devlin-Glass