A photographer catches up with his dispersed subjects

Life abroad: Documenting emigration

Photographer David Monahan follows up his very succesful series 'Leaving Dublin' by going around the globe to catch-up with his sitters. Video: Daniel O'Connor

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:01

Trundling along on the train from Victoria Station to the suburbs of Surrey in London in 2011, photographer David Monahan took some impromptu snaps of the man sitting across from him, who he had travelled from Dublin to visit.

The pair hadn’t known each other until a year previously, when Conor McMahon, a consultant from Donaghmede, became one of the first people leaving the country in search of work to sit for Monahan’s burgeoning series of emigrant portraits, taken in the days before their departure from Dublin.

“I had wanted to make a set of portraits of people who were leaving,” Monahan says of the original idea, “to document the faces and the places so people in ten years’ time, instead of looking at the statistics showing ‘x’ number left and where they went, that they could see what the people looked like, who they were, how they dressed.”

He wanted the viewer to be “arrested by the photographs”, to get them thinking both about how emigration affects them personally and the country as a whole. The scenes were meticulously staged, shot outdoors at night using stark studio lighting, with the sitter in a “historically heroic pose”, in a location that meant something to them. A battered leather suitcase was a recurring prop.

“This was meant to make a statement about the people, or help the people make a statement about themselves, that they were charging out there into the world rather than leaving by the back door,” he explains.

Alan Pentony before Alan Pentony after
The 84 portraits he shot between 2010 and July of last year have been used by print and broadcast media around the world to illustrate the Irish downturn. Life-size prints formed a central feature at the 2012 PhotoIreland festival in Dublin, which led to a 10-month long exhibition at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne last year, visited by more than 100,000 people.

But the act of leaving Ireland was just the first step on the emigrant journey for Monahan’s subjects and he didn’t want their story to end with that first photograph.

The monochrome pictures of McMahon taken on the train that day would form the basis of the next stage of Monahan’s On Leaving project, which has since taken him all over the world.

“When I got home and processed the work I realised it was a great way to follow up, investigating what has happened with these people, where they are now, how life is panning out for them,” he says.

A visit to Australia to coincide with the opening of the Melbourne exhibition provided an opportunity to catch-up with his sitters there, leading to an eight-week road trip with his family to take pictures of people now settled in cities across Australia and New Zealand.

He is just home from a similar trip around the US, Canada and South America, where he photographed sitters in their new homes from Toronto to Sao Paulo. Of the 84 subjects in his original series, he has been to visit about 50 so far, with a final trip to France, Spain and the Netherlands planned for next month.

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.
From Monday 20th October 2014 we're changing how readers sign-in to comment, click here for more information.