Ireland in photographs: the Uncertain State we’re in
Ten photographic artists address ‘the crisis in Ireland’ in a key exhibition in the PhotoIreland festival
David Farrell’s Clare, from An Archaelogy of the Present, part of the exhibition Uncertain State at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin
From Asylum Archive’s series Direct Provision Hostels in the exhibition An Uncertain State at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin
Overpass, from Paddy Kelly’s photographs of former IRA training sites in his series Bogland, from the exhibition An Uncertain State at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin
These days, everyone is a photographer. Digital imaging technology, the internet and social media have hyper-accelerated a tendency towards convenience and affordability, a progression that has characterised photography since its invention in the mid-19th century.
Anyone with a mobile phone can shoot hundreds of images, not to mention video clips, in the space of a couple of hours and have them posted instantly online, something that would have seemed not only impossible but quite incredible not that long ago. A limitless ocean of onscreen imagery is now part and parcel of our environment.
Is this an example of the democratising effect touted by proponents of the World Wide Web? Yes and no. Photography may be the medium, but the medium shouldn’t be the message. To parallel its ubiquity as a medium, more than ever we need a critical sense of photography, and that imperative, rather than simply cheer-leading, is at the heart of PhotoIreland 2013, this year’s instalment of the annual photographic festival spread across Dublin, Cork and Limerick. This critical spirit is exemplified in the Gallery of Photography’s keynote exhibition Uncertain State. Curated by Trish Lambe, the show marshals the work of 10 photographic artists who address “the crisis in Ireland” in different ways.
None of them takes reportage photographs as such. Each sets out to explore a particular set of facts and issues in a sustained, analytical way, to use photography rather than to make conventional photographs.
The range is considerable. Straightforwardly, David Farrell’s An Archaeology of the Present consists of large-scale images charting a journey through Ireland after the economic calamity. He finds – you guessed it – half-finished suburban estates incongruously parachuted into rural terrain, abandoned, unfinished hotels and other topographical oddities. There’s a surreal strangeness to the Celtic Tiger world that comes vividly across in, for example, his cinematic image of a pristine, incomplete estate in Kinlough, Co Sligo.
Eoin Ó Conaill and Paddy Kelly also tackle the contemporary Irish landscape, though in more nuanced, indirect ways. In Reprieve, the former depicts a succession of greenfield sites earmarked for development, with some preliminary work done, planning permission lapsed, now left to be reclaimed by nature. They look not quite right, disordered, but one wouldn’t know what on earth had been going on.
Equally, Kelly’s urban and rural scenes in Bogland look remote and slightly forbidding, but also quite ordinary. What links them is that the locations served as training camps for the IRA during the 1970s. As he sees it, the “objective truth” of the photograph always contains a subterranean history known to some, often closely guarded, but passed along orally.
This notion of hidden histories is starkly illustrated in a remarkable series by Kim Haughton. Titled In Plain Sight, it delves into another disturbing strand of recent Irish history. Haughton collaborated with victims – exceptionally brave people, it must be said – of child sexual abuse. Individual portraits are paired with views of the places where the abuse took place, ordinary, innocuous looking places, usually.
It’s tough, troubling work but, as Haughton says: “Denial and secrecy provide opportunities for perpetrators to continue to sexually abuse children . . . The strength and openness of the people who have collaborated in this process is a brave act of public testimony. It represents a direct challenge to the culture of secrecy and suppression of child abuse in Ireland, asking the viewer to openly acknowledge the reality of these painful histories.”
Úna Spain’s documentation of St Brigid’s psychiatric hospital in Ballinasloe looks to its former Victorian incarnation. Her forensic studies of the unclaimed possessions of former residents, “the forgotten other”, are desperately sad. She notes how place names can become associated with asylums. Such was the status of St Brigid’s in the West the vernacular phrase, “Cuireach sé soir thú” (literally “it would put you east”) was understood to mean, “It would drive you mad”.