Photography and text by David Gilbert Wright
David Gilbert Wright is a British documentary photographer with family connections in Ireland. His travels have repeatedly taken him to the Irish countryside, where as recently as in the 1980s and 90s he found scenes that appear like a throwback to a much earlier period, stories and places that show tradition, change, and also the sometimes difficult realities of life in Western Ireland at the time. For this photo reportage, we asked David to tell us about his own experience and impressions, and about the stories behind the pictures. David shot all images in this story on an analog Pentax KX using Ilford FP4 film, and then made a silver print from the negatives.
The photographs for this series were taken on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland (Eire) in the 1980s and 90s. I produced a number of photo-stories prior to embarking on what was to be one of my longest projects to date – Disappearing Ireland. It began as my response to a culture that seemed to have been frozen in the 1950s. Gradually, I began to notice that foreign investment was causing a change. I could see that the rural communities of the west of Ireland would succumb to the juggernaut of progress. So I set out to document those communities to help my sons understand something about their heritage. Little did I know then, that this body of work would go beyond that goal and capture the imaginations of many people from around the world who either had their own roots in Ireland or who just loved to find out more about such an interesting culture.
A photograph is a slice of time. It has a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. We have come to know this through our own use of photography. It can never capture everything that unravels in front of us. Furthermore, photographs are paradoxical objects in that they remind us of the presence and absence of something. In that respect, they can become melancholy objects. The photographs of previous generations remind us of our mortality. How can photographs be so powerful? After all, they are only the result of light falling on a recording medium. They have no power on their own, they rely solely on our ability to make sense of them. We provide the interpretation. We give them a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. We literally create the story around a picture based on our personal experiences and knowledge.
So my series Disappearing Ireland provides glimpses of such a slice of time. It is a story of a culture at the end of the last Millennium.
The series opens with a picture of a large cross mounted on a rough dry-stone pillar with the sea and sky in the background. It is a metaphor for the strength and power of the Roman Catholic Religion in Ireland. The series then goes on to explore some of the themes important to the people in that community – family, age, work, entertainment, transport and religion.
Each photograph has both its own story and is also connected to the lives of the people in those communities and the people who have left and formed part of a larger diaspora around the world. That includes members of the family I married into. In this respect, it becomes a story told by someone who is both inside and outside of the community. Nevertheless, the Irish lived up to their reputation of being extremely welcoming, friendly and generous.
The Roman Catholic religion was central to the lives of the Irish people for centuries, but the end of the second millennium saw changes. The village priest had been a key figure in the community. He provided more than spiritual guidance, he was present at all the key points of life - birth and baptism, making Holy Communion, marriage and death. He was there to receive confessions, offer solace, head up the catholic school and bless the homes of people when they moved in. The priest was a binding agent in the community. However, his role was to diminish as people questioned the purpose of religion. Ireland was modernising and by so doing, losing fundamental aspects of its Irishness.
The picture with the village priest brings together two of the themes of this series - childhood and religion. The photograph was taken in the little village of Kinvarra, just south of Galway, in 1988. The priest is presiding over a public event. A remarkable scene, and typically Irish with its rain!
The following picture is a story about a boy at the fairground in Co.Galway, which I call 'Time to have fun!'. It not only positions the photograph in time but also comments on the difference and similarity between the English and Irish: It was 1988 and hedonism was the name of the game in England. Yuppies strutted around the new Docklands financial development in London in their sharp suits, new mobile phones, padded shoulders and brash attitudes. Money was spent liberally on flash cars and alcohol in the newly opened wine bars. There couldn't be more of a contrast to the scene in this photograph.
Although the words on the van invite people to have fun, the reality I saw was one of a decrepit bygone age. The ground is littered and the boy is dirty and wearing a cheap, grimy vest. And, what is he doing? Is that his idea of fun? To me he looks miserable. Two worlds, sharing the same language, a similar culture, geographically so close, but what a contrast.
The series has several examples of how I go about taking photographs. In most cases, I only expose one or two frames unless it is a portrait session. Cartier Bresson called this “The Decisive Moment”, and I am a great believer in this. The picture entitled Assumption Day is an example of this.
The Feast of Assumption is very important in the Catholic religion and also in Ireland. It marks two events, the departure of Mary from this life and the assumption of her body into heaven by God. So there I was on the 15th of August, finding myself at an outdoor celebration of this event. I was standing at the back when this boy looked round. To shoot at the decisive moment, you must know intuitively when to take the photograph. In this case, I met the boy´s gaze, knelt down to his eye-level and took just one exposure. The result was poignant.
This picture also continues the theme of children and religion. The boy's expression and body language of hands in pockets foreshadows the turning away from the Church. As the millennium drew to a close, the importance of religious belief in the Irish consciences waned. Was it replaced with something better? That will be a question only the people of Ireland will be able to answer.
I used an analog camera for all these pictures. There is a psychological concept at work during the process of using film to make photographs. It is delayed gratification. You have to wait to see the results of your labour. This is rather old fashioned in our consumer-driven world where you can have it now and pay later. It means that you have to make sure you get it right in terms of framing, focus, lighting, exposure, and processing. Modern cameras remove these concerns through their automation but in so doing, they have also removed some important aspects of photography including technique, choice and control. Ansel Adams wrote extensively about “Pre-visualisation”. This is the ability of the photographer to be able to translate what s/he sees into two dimensions and black and white. He also describes how the sensitivity of film will only allow a fraction of the contrast range to be recorded. Therefore, the photographer has to decide where to position the exposure. The photograph of the pilgrims descending Croagh Patrick is an example of this. The exposure needed to allow the detail of the bare-footed people to be clear. They climbed this rocky mountain as an offering to God. Placing the exposure in that position would have rendered the sky completely white and lost the dramatic, overcast rain clouds. A compromise had to be made and then rectified during the printing stage.
During my travels through Ireland I met several people who I had fleeting acquaintances with as we passed through their lives. For example, the farmer couple Tom and Sheila: Reaching Sheila and Tom's farm was no easy matter. We had to drive down a long, straight 'boreen'. Very little traffic went that way. You could tell by the grass growing all the way down the centre and branches of the hedgerow growing out into the track.Sheila was one of Paddy's sisters. They had worked the small farm for a number of years. We were staying for dinner but Sheila realized the orange squash had run out so she sent Tom off to buy some. I went with him. I offered to drive but he wanted to take me, so I went round to the passenger side of his car. He had to open the door from the inside. I pulled it open to discover there was no seat. "Get in then" he called. So I sat on the floor where the seat had been. Trundling along for miles across the bog, we eventually reached a tiny village store similar to those I had seen in Co.Clare. We picked up the groceries and the return journey began. It's an odd experience sitting down low on a car floor looking up at the driver and trying desperately to peer over the dash to see where we were going. I can see why cars have seats. It was the ride of my life!
When I suggested taking a photograph they went and got their goat!
Another interesting story is that of the Irish Travellers. If you take the road out of Kinvarra and head south you will come to Co.Clare. There is a dry-stone wall that begins in a field and goes halfway up the hill and then suddenly stops. I wondered what it was for, because it doesn't enclose anything. I later found out that during the Irish Potato Famine, families were forced out of their homes by absentee English landlords and had to tramp the roads in search of hand-outs. One generous landowner hired some of the wanderers to build the wall so they would receive help without having to lose self-respect. The famine was unnecessary because there was plenty of grain being harvested, but it was being bought up and exported. Over a million Irish died of starvation and another million were forced to emigrate.
In Co.Clare I encountered this modern day equivalent of the 'Irish travellers'. I came across a small encampment and a young family.
For those who remember the New-age Travellers of the 1980s, here was a living example, complete with original caravans and a number of horses. They travelled the roads, free and happy living simply and picking up the odd bit of work when they could. They were a long way from the starving, homeless wanderers of the 1840s. Theirs was a lifestyle choice. But what wonderful, colourful characters.
Knockgarra or 'Nogra' is a tiny little cluster of only three cottages. Two are farms and the other is a store and pub. One of the farms belonged to Kathleen. One afternoon, I was standing outside when she came out, crossed to her cow that had been waiting patiently in the pen, and began milking.
Nothing unusual about that, the locals of Nogra might say. But to 'outsiders' like us from the 'Mainland' it is a remarkable scene for the 1990s. Here was a middle-aged woman, down on her hands and knees milking a cow by hand into a zinc bucket. And if that's not unusual enough for you, she was wearing a pinny and in her curlers! Life in rural areas such as these is never short of a few surprises but this is her reality.
The Disappearing Island series is my ‘melancholy object’ because when I look at the pictures now they remind me of what was and what is now lost forever. Much of it has personal importance as it includes members of the family I married into, places I became familiar with as I travelled with my family. The fallen cross serves as a metaphor for the things lost forever including the end of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland.
There are several other documentary projects I am currently working on and that I want to share with as many people as possible. Because to me photography is about storytelling.
Thank you for telling us your story, David! It is a true pleasure to be able to highlight some of your work.
You can see more of David´s Ireland series here on the website, read an interview about his approach to photography, and keep up with his latest projects by visiting his Instagram gallery and his website.
© All photographs are the property of David Gilbert Wright.