Eamonn Doyle on urban experience, encounters with strangers and finding artistic expression close to home.
Let’s talk about the creative process behind Made In Dublin. How did the book come together? How does it relate to your previous publications, i, ON, and End.
It was important for me that we didn’t just make a facsimile of those earlier books or make a book ‘about’ those books. So we decided to make a completely new work that would draw from a lot of the same images but stand completely on its own.
In the early stages of the book design, we had just started a cinematic work, also named Made In Dublin. This is a nine-screen, surround-sound panoramic installation presenting a continually changing cycle of events played out by the movement of people throughout Dublin. That editing and cropping process definitely influenced and fed into the design approach for thebook. Then there’s the addition of Kevin Barry’s text, which also adds a whole extra layer to the work.
You’ve remarked that many of your photos were shot within ten minutes of your front door. Did you always want to work close to home?
I’ve never really photographed properly outside of Dublin. I had notions of travelling the world and photographing when I left college in the early 90s, but anytime I tried I’d find myself thinking I should be photographing closer to home.
I pretty much stopped taking photographs for the next 20 years after that, but during that time, with the recent waves of immigrants into Ireland, it felt like the world had arrived on my doorstep anyway. There’s a wealth of photographic subjects here now. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface in the area I live, yet alone in Dublin or Ireland.
As it becomes easier to travel, and more and more images flood in from all over the world, I’ve become far less inclined to go out and photograph ‘exotic’ or different places and cultures. I think the most interesting and most essential things are universal so it’s more interesting for me to work close to home and see what I can dig up on my own doorstep.
I’m ever mindful of the fact that I’m just experiencing one tiny slice of time in a space, in which there’s an infinite number of photographic possibilities.
The legacy of James Joyce means that the very idea of “Dubliners” carries strong artistic association. What was it about Dublin and its residents that you wanted to capture with these works?
The very nature of ‘street’ photography means that it’s non-conceptual, in the sense that I don’t go out with any particular intention in mind. I just go out and see what the street throws up at you. In this case it’s Dublin, and being from Dublin gives me a certain sense of the place that will be different to that of a non-Dubliner.
Writing about Dublin but living in Paris, both Joyce and Beckett were flâneurs of a city they were exiled from. Joyce is packing in as much detail, description, history and biography as possible but I’d tend to be more drawn towards Beckett’s stripped back approach.
With regard to my own work, thoughts of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy also come to mind, detectives and characters carving out grooves in a city, or Sophie Calle secretly following people she arbitrarily chooses on the street.
It’s a difficult genre to consciously go out and try to express yourself through. For the most part all you can do is go out into the world and see how you react to it. It can be liberating and incredibly frustrating and restrictive at the same time.
Your work follows a long tradition of street photography but abandons many of its favourite tropes, honing in instead on the human figure. What made you want to photograph people in the city as opposed to through portraiture?
I’ve mostly photographed on the street up until now because that’s where everybody is. When you live in a city centre, you have these brief encounters hundreds of times a week.
The vast majority of human interaction tends to be these fleeting moments, but they can be loaded with brief but quite powerful feelings. I tend to experience most of my strongest emotions when I’m out on the street — feelings of disgust, empathy, lust, envy: it can be all be quite highly charged.
And the city itself — its concrete, brick, tarmac, dirt and dust presents as much character as the people: musical beats and textures within the score of the urban whole.
Beyond that, I’m mindful of the unknowability of any stranger you photograph. They say a photographer is always photographing themselves. That’s maybe true. What I do think is that I’m not actually representing the people in the images in any kind of comprehensive way. I suspect most people I photograph would think they were being misrepresented in the images. We shouldn’t confuse or identify the image with the subject of the image.
It’s not possible to learn much about someone from a single frame, but over a series of multiple images I guess it’s possible to learn or feel something of the photographer’s sense of the place, or at least what things looked like when they decided to press the shutter. It’s incomplete and it’s inadequate in terms of learning much about someone, but it’s more than enough in terms of triggering a feeling, thought or maybe even an emotion.
How often do you go out in the city with a camera?
Very seldom these days but I hope to get out at bit over the summer. My most recent work was shot primarily in the west of Ireland in a completely rural setting, so I haven’t shot much on the street since working on the first three books, and even then it would usually be for quite short intensive periods.
What makes a subject stand out for you?
For me, street photography at its best is when you reach some kind of meditative state. That’s when the subconscious takes over, and it’s really interesting to see what you react to and are drawn towards — pulled around the city by all sorts of random details, colours, and so on. I tend not to be interested in photographing things that ‘want’ to be photographed, so I usually shy away from any kind of street events, parades, protests, marches etc.
Many of your subjects are captured from above, below, or behind, creating this tension of proximity and anonymity at once. How did this perspective evolve for you?
In taking these photographs, I tried to strip away many of the elements that are often expected in street photography — context, obvious biographical cues and signifiers, general ‘background noise’. I shot from above, mostly, and tried to flatten the figures into the pavements and roads, and I usually tried to avoid showing their faces.
Not showing faces seemed to be a way to evoke the very unknowability of these people and, perhaps, by implication, of all those with whom we have such fleeting, urban encounters.
It could be argued that revealing so few faces results in a ‘turning away’ from the people in these photographs. My intention is quite the opposite. Portrait photography usually finds its expressiveness in faces; I want the viewer to look elsewhere, to find cues other than the obvious ones, to look harder and, if needs be, to infer the missing faces.
In one sense, the more I honed in on specific details while also stripping away most of the local signifiers and background noise, the more universal the characters become. There are details in the images that make them unmistakably Dublin, yet they also feel very universal.
The photos in i show elderly residents of the city, often stooped and hunched as they navigate pavements, curbs, shopping bags and streets. What drew you to these older subjects in particular?
The photographs that form i gestated as I started to feel my way back into photography following a long break. It was around that time that I was re-discovering the work of Samuel Beckett, specifically the ‘Trilogy’. I began to be drawn towards a number of solitary ‘Beckettian’ figures I saw on the streets of Dublin, people I had seen passing me every day who seemed to be treading the same ground, day in, day out.
The question then became: is it possible to take photographs of these people in such a way that will honour their essential, even existential, distance from me? Is it possible to photograph them in a way that says ‘I won’t gain knowledge of them by photographing them, but maybe something will come from the attempt to, maybe even from the failure to’?
Most of your subjects are also photographed alone. Do you correlate the city with isolation?
With some people there’s more a sense of introspection. Although I’d observe them tread the same ground day in day out, they somehow felt more detached from their surroundings.In some of the other work, it’s as if the city’s seal has cracked open and the world has flooded in. Even though most people appear caught up in their private worlds, they always seem at odds in some way with their environment.
Words by Eliza Apperly.