Paul Kelly has been chronicling life in north inner city Dublin through his ongoing photography project, North Wall Series, since 2014. Kelly lives in the area and has captured sporting events and community gatherings along with occasional incidents of anti-social behaviour.
The Silver Lining exhibit, featuring nine photos from the series, opened at the Cloud Cafe on North Strand Road last week and will remain on display through to the end of September. The theme of the exhibit is water and community engagement with water.
Kelly says the erection of high-rise apartment buildings and the installation of greenery along the canal over the past decade has gentrified North Wall. Many of his images depict this transformation and the coexistence between newcomers and long-time residents.
“There’s a real sense of pride of place,” he says. “The strength of the community is that they’ve always existed. Everyone knows each other and stands together. All this external influence has to fit in with the existing community.”
His two favourite photos from the exhibit are Dock Life and Empires because he feels they best capture the integration of the old and new in the area.
Dock Life depicts a girl sunbathing on the green in front of one of the new apartment buildings while local kids jump off the bridge in the background.
“In Dock Life, you have the two communities coming together as one because they’re sharing space,” Kelly says. “I love that picture because everyone is happy being together and the area is being used equally.”
Meanwhile, his black and white photo Empires shows kids sitting atop the wood pallets they burn at Halloween while a luxury apartment complex dominates the background.
Kelly’s introduction to photography came after he used a small inheritance to buy a second-hand camera and join a photo club in Cork. “I had done art in school and always felt like I could see, so the camera was the perfect way to capture that.”
After college, he moved to Seattle, Washington where he kept a photo diary, shooting one roll of film a week. Kelly describes it as a visual journal, “kind of like Instagram nowadays”.
He later attended Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), now Technological University Dublin, where he studied photography. While there, he was selected to photograph former president Mary MacAleese’s public and private life.
“At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to photograph people,” he says.
In addition to photojournalism, Kelly shoots weddings and does commercial jobs. “It’s very hard to specialise in Ireland because it’s a small market. The common thread for me is anyone with a beating heart, so people or animals,” he adds.
Before his son was born in 2013, Kelly had travelled the world on assignments for non-profit organisations. He would then extend his stay and shoot his own projects.
“When my boy was born, I realised I didn’t have that kind of freedom to head off. But I realised quite quickly that all this life was right on my doorstep,” Kelly says of his focus on the locality.
After introducing himself to North Wall sports clubs, churches, drug rehabilitation facilities and community centres, he headed out on to the streets. “If you come in as an outsider and start taking people’s photos and aren’t asking permission or engaging with them, you immediately become a target of suspicion,” he says.
Street photography came with risks. One Halloween eve, Kelly was taking photos on the docks when a man wearing a balaclava and carrying a gun demanded he stop. Kelly pushed the shutter once more. The man then leaned in and cocked the gun near Kelly’s head.
As he removed the balaclava, Kelly recalls, the man lowered the gun, laughed and asked: ‘Did we get ya, Paul?’
“I think you got me lads,” he said in reply, his hands shaking.
Most of his interactions were less noteworthy.
Shooting with a 50mm lens allows Kelly to be close to his subjects without being intrusive. He always asks permission before snapping the shutter. Since he and his camera are a familiar presence in the neighbourhood, locals often ask to have their photos taken.
In addition to photography, Kelly interviewed people in the community for a short film entitled North Wall Stories that aired on RTÉ. The documentary Sheriff Street to Delphi, based on Kelly’s concept and also shown on RTÉ, followed six youths on their journey from North Wall to Delphi in Co Mayo, where they learn to fish for salmon and kayak.
The Silver Lining exhibit is free and open to the public.