Four photos capture my emigration journey to America and home again

Sarah Maria Griffin sat four times for photographer David Monahan in Dublin and San Francisco


I have sat for David Monahan and his camera four times in four years, for his photography project about Irish emigration. To look back on that imagery now is strange; to talk about having emigrated at all is strange. I came back from the US so I didn’t have to do that, or be that anymore; and yet it’s in everything I do, it’s something I can’t quite shed. These images are four punctuation marks.

One, three nights before I left for America, perched high on the wall at the side of the Bayside Graveyard. The next on my first trip home, at the Metro Café on South William Street. The third time, when he visited me in San Francisco, in El Rio on Mission Street before climbing up the crest of Bernal Hill, a matrix of the city’s lights spread out behind me at sunset. Most recently, on the roof of the little house in Ringsend that I live in now, after the adventure is done, after the tone of the story has changed.

The girl on the wall in the brown jacket and brown boots doesn’t know a thing about what lies before her; she’s running away with her boyfriend during a frightening recession in search of a better life. She wants to go.

The girl in the Metro Café knows she’s not happy, but it’s too soon to give up. She’s still trying.

The girl in El Rio isn’t sleeping, is so frustrated, is making escape plans.

The girl on the roof got away, but not unscathed; not without knowing what failure to settle abroad really feels like. She’s the only one I know now, the rest made strangers by time and perspective; the rest, any emigrant.

As we waited for the light to shift on the roof that day, all I could think was I am so glad we’re here. Little red brick maze of a housing estate, so utterly Dublin. I was so relieved. Over my shoulder, a neighboring woman peers out from her house at the scene on the roof, peeking through the curtains. I don’t know this while we shoot, but David does. She’s there behind me, a spectator.

Not the first: I heavily documented my time in America, through writing essays; a whole book of them, in the end. The spectator is vital, a defining factor in the documentary. Sitting for David was a different kind of documentation than the essays I wrote. There was a deliberate surrender there; there are things a camera can see, slivers of truth, that I could never - and may never - commit to paper.

In becoming a subject in the the On Leaving project, especially in the context of location and time, my gaze shifted. It became detached. It was a privilege to have a camera pointed at me in this context: four moments during the most transformative years of my life so far. It gave me perspective. Looking at the photographs now feels stranger than just noting how my eyebrows are really over-plucked in 2012, or now I lost the scarf I’m wearing in the Metro Café but I still wear that jumper all the time. How my cheeks are heavier, then more hollow. How I’m older, even by a little, each time.

Handing over aspects of your emigration narrative to an artist is a risky thing, but I trusted David immediately. His handling of the work comes with integrity, genuine curiosity and great humor. He captured the worlds I moved through and the mood of those years with great nuance; the backdrops as important, if not more than the figure in the work.

The figure could be anyone. Any wide-eyed kid leaving Ireland with hopes of a better life. Any homesick, overworked émigré too proud to call it a day just yet but still checks rent listings every single night, still makes lists, still won’t put the suitcases in the wardrobe rather stacking them at the foot of the bed, a reminder of the impermanence of this: America just a big hotel, not a home. Any rooftop in this old town, any shoulders sloped with relief, with thank God that’s all over.

People come home and go every day; there is little extraordinary about emigration, or return. That’s the power in these vignettes, the arc of change. A girl leaves. She comes home. It’s four years, it’s ten, it’s just another Tuesday. That’s what Irish people do. David points the camera, chats, manages to both condense that narrative and blow it up so huge that it encompasses all of us who’ve walked out of Terminal 2 with no return ticket.

The sister image to the most recent portrait is one of my cat, on the rooftop. We took a living thing from America back to Ireland with us, a familiar. He’s not in any of the previous pictures, but he’s here, after it’s all done, standing on the edge of the roof. Mustard yellow eyes looking at something in the distance, overcast skies above him. His presence as a companion image to the last portrait is like a post-script at the end of the letter. He is proof I did it, proof I tried. I did not come home empty handed.

In both images, the cat and the relieved girl are looking out of frame. The place they used to live isn’t even a dot in the distance. It’s just Dublin, as far as the eye can see; Dublin, at last.

Sarah Maria Griffin's debut YA novel Spare and Found Parts will be published by Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins) in October. Her book of essays on emigration, Not Lost, is published by New Island Press. She tweets @griffski

David Monahan

Beyond Leaving is the final part of a suite of works around the recent wave of net emigration from Ireland which ran from 2009-2016. You may be familiar with the Leaving Dublin series, and the book On Leaving, both which have featured on Generation Emigration in The Irish Times over the past few years.

On August 24th, the Central Statistics Office announced that in the year ending april 2016, there was a return to net inward migration for Ireland for the first time since 2009. This signals the end of a cycle.

Beyond Leaving features a series of over 25 new large scale (1m x 1.3m) photographic works shot in 2016 on location in Dublin, Toronto, Ohio, Chicago, Surrey and Wicklow, with some of the recently departed and some of those who have chosen to return home.

It will hang for four months from November to late February 2017 at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar. The work also features video, interview, text and artefact made over the entire period of the works and is a timely appraisal of a dark period of Irish, European and World history from the perspective of people who left Ireland during this time.

This show seeks to find the distance between these travellers expectations and the reality of their lives today : The work therefore becomes a metaphor for the precarious nature of modern life and a place in which to evaluate our societies reaction to the financial downturn.

To date there have been 10 national and international presentations of my works relating to the theme of current emigration. To read more about the project, or to contribute to my Fundit campaign to help finance the exhibition, see and

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