Before and after: Emigrant journeys captured in photo book

David Monahan has spent four years documenting 84 departures for ‘On Leaving’

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

 

In February 2010 I invited people about to emigrate from Dublin for financial reasons to join me to make a portrait. I wanted to photograph them in a heroic light as they stood on the cusp of a life-changing moment.

It seemed apt at the time, as the frequency of departures was rising and emigration and financial strife were the hot topics of the day. I wanted to humanise this wave of emigration (read a 2012 Irish Times interview with Monahan and some of his “sitters” here: Leaving all the old, familiar places).

I had personally felt the effect of mass emigration in the 1980s, and knew the impact similar movement out of Ireland had on my parents in the 1950s. To see it happening again plunged me into a deep sadness. I wanted to turn this into something positive, to celebrate the lives of those who felt they had to leave to have a life.

I had absolutely no idea what the reaction would be to the idea once I put it out there. But having received an encouraging response, I began to shoot my first portraits in early March.

The project, Leaving Dublin, ended up being a series of 84 late night, dark light, theatrically staged, carefully choreographed portraits, which were soulful and revelatory.

A series of over 80 empty dawn landscapes followed, reflecting the land they left behind. I then travelled the world, from Auckland to San Francisco, which resulted in over 60 rolls of face-to-face square format black-and-white portraits of these emigrants in their new homes.

As the project unfolded the work was shown as Leaving Dublin in several countries as a projection, and in Dublin, Donegal, and Melbourne in Australia as a gallery exhibition.

On Leaving is the title given to the collection of three series of photographs. They first came together in a coherent piece as a show in Siamse Tíre in Tralee, Co Kerry, and from there my ambition to create a book of the project slowly evolved.

It never occurred to me when scouting the first shot that this work would turn into a project which would come to define so much about a particular time in Ireland. Featuring in Irish and international broadcast and print media, it has become part of the dialogue around the subject of migration (read more about how the project evolved in an interview with Monahan earlier this year: A photographer catches up with his dispersed subjects).

I never thought for a moment that I would spend several weeks in Australia and London revisiting people I met for the first time the night before they left Ireland. Nor did I see myself travelling extensively in the USA, Canada, Brazil and Mexico, before making a last dash to Paris and Portlaoise to catch the last two portraits before the book project was put to bed.

From the very start, this project has been about people, their strength, their resilience, their courage, their look, their truths. As a book it gives a voice to its participants and speaks directly to history on their behalf.

The resonance created by the work is brought into sharper focus by a series of thoughtful essays by authorities on this subject. In fact two of them are participants: Jennifer Redmond, a history professor whose doctoral research centred on emigration, and Sarah Griffin, a young writer who has written several articles for Generation Emigration on the trials and tribulations of life in San Francisco.

Piaras Mac Éinrí, co-author of the recent UCC Study “Irish emigration in an age of austerity”, and migrant rights advocate and writer Noreen Bowden have also contributed essays.

On Leaving, a 304 page volume with 156 photographs of all 84 original “sitters”, will be launched by Jennifer Redmond at the Gallery of Photography in Meeting House Square in Temple Bar at 6pm this Thursday, December 11th. All are welcome.

For further details see onleaving.com, davidmonahan.eu or thelillipution.blogspot.com

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