Doug DuBois spent five summers photographing the small neighborhood of Russell Heights in Ireland to capture the essence of coming of age: the inevitable loss of youth and the imminent transition into adulthood. Those four years resulted in his latest book, My Last Day At Seventeen. The book is a visual tale told through a collection of photographs and gives an alternative perspective through a comic narrative around the same subject. This creative combination of two distinct narratives in one book not only works wonderfully in visual terms; it also serves as an essential tool that lets the reader dig deeper into the story being told, making one go back to the book over and over again, yet from a new perspective, every single time.
Learn more about Doug Dubois and the process of creating the book My Last Day at Seventeen in this exclusive interview.
The book starts in an intriguing way, with a sequence of photos of a fire scene. What made you decide on these images to initiate this collection?
There are a couple of reasons. The fire sets up the first of many image sequences that appear throughout the book; it anticipates the illustrated comic which begins some dozen or so pages later; and alludes to the cinematic staging and narrative that the photographs employ. The fire itself is a bonfire – part of a long standing Irish tradition of celebrating the summer solstice. So the sequence also sets up the tension between the documentary aspects of the work and the staged, fictional devices.
You started off this project as a complete “outsider” to the community. How does a photographer gain the trust of his/her subjects in this kind of situations?
It takes a lot of time. I was invited to Ireland to be an artist in residence at the Sirius Art Centre and my initial goal was to photograph the economic downturn that was happening in Ireland in 2009. I was also working with a group of kids who had dropped out of school, but were interested in photography. We would meet a couple days a week to edit and design a Blurb-book of their photographs. At some point, about 2 weeks into my one month residency, I asked the kids, as a group, to take me to their neighborhood. Kevin and Eirn, who were a couple at the time, took me to Russel Heights.
Initially I was met with a blend of curiously and hostility. Curiosity, because I was American and some hostility because Russell Heights is a tight knit neighborhood of families where everyone knows everyone else and I was a stranger carrying a big camera. I definitely stood out.
That first summer, some people would shout at us to leave the neighborhood. The police would get called a lot. It got so bad the local Garda would look at me and go “Oh, it’s you again”. As I got to know more and more people things became easier. I returned the second summer and every summer afterward with a pile of prints to give away. This was a great way to re-connect with everyone and generate ideas for new photographs. I’d see the prints in people’s homes hung up in little frames or taped to a bedroom wall. Sometimes one or two would be blowing around an alleyway. As the photographs became part of the neighborhood, I became accepted – even expected each summer.
The photographs not only focus on the teens but also on their surroundings, the housing estate. How important was it to focus on Russel Heights in particular to tell this story?
Russell Heights is typical of many neighborhoods in Ireland and not radically different from housing estates throughout Western Europe and the US. The brightly painted row houses, the graffiti, the garden walls and even the occasional palm tree are a familiar landscape to working and middle class Irish. My hope for the book is that these prosaic details become more than just a backdrop for the portraits. For instance, the garden wall is much more than a dividing line for property, it offers a place for children to bounce a hurling ball, a football, do handstand and flip; neighbors to gossip; teenagers to meet and sometimes vent their frustrations with graffiti and the occasional broken bottle. The architecture and the social structure of the neighborhood are intertwined.
Why did you photograph with film, rather than digital? Or did you use digital as well?
I used film because of the resolution and the precision of larger cameras. The 4×5 demands a particular way of working, it slows everything down and turns the act of photographing into a ritual, and the act of being photographed into a performance. Making the image takes time and collaboration. I’m much more interested in the literary truth that emerges from negotiating a pose or a scene for the camera than catching people and events in the moment. I also used medium format film cameras to give me flexibility with lighting, working hand-held, etc. I always had a digital camera on hand to test a lighting arrangement; take quick snapshots as sketches for future photographs and simply make pictures a for fun. Many, if not most of the photographs I gave away each summer –kids posing with their friends, making faces, doing flips, family groups — the usual stuff that fills picture albums and Facebook pages — were made with the digital camera
How good of a job does photography do when it comes to portraying reality? Sometimes a photograph may be deemed as not completely honest because it is staged, and posed.
A photograph, at best, represents of a fragment of what’s out there. The limitations of this way of seeing and representing the world is well known if not always well understood by everyone that looks at photographs. Journalists working for news organizations and the like, have a very specific set of criteria for making images. If they betray these rules and present or caption an image as an unmediated representation of a place or event when it’s been set up or tampered with in post production, then we can question the honesty of the image – or more to the point, the author. My photographs make no claim as a work of journalism. The photographs and the illustrated comic that make up “My Last Day at Seventeen,” blend narrative truth and fiction to create something that I hope is true to the experience of the people in the photographs, their neighborhood and (broadly speaking) the tensions and emotions related to growing up and coming of age. That’s as honest as I can be.
How did you work on the comic?
The comic illustrator, Paddy Lynch is from Dublin. I was searching for an illustrator to work with and saw his comics on-line, ordered a few of his publications and felt he was the perfect collaborator. He liked my work and the challenge of integrating an illustrated comic into a book of photographs. We met face to face for the first time in the summer of 2014 in Cobh. Paddy came down to Dublin to make sketches and help me collect stories for the comic narrative. I brought a simple mockup of the book – just sequenced inkjet prints taped together – for people to look at and an audio recorder to tape their reactions to the photographs and whatever stories they would offer about growing up in Russell Heights. We promised to tweak the details and combine the stories so no one could be easily identified. The recordings became the raw material for Paddy’s comic. I don’t think either of us realized how hard it would be to distill these stories into a coherent narrative. It took, god knows how many Skype sessions and emails to hammer out the details, but Paddy remained committed and produced a brilliant piece of work.
Combining the comic illustrations with the photographs was an equally daunting task. I was lucky that Aperture agreed to ask Hans Gremmen, an amazing book designer, to work on the project. We never could have pulled this off without his input and insight.
While I was reading the comic, I was trying to find out if the stories were about someone in specific. Eventually, I did realize it was meant to be more of a general thing, but it did made me go back to the photographs in order to try to find out more about them.
That’s good. One important function of the comic pages is to make you go back and consider what the photograph mean and how they function to tell their story. The narratives run parallel and hopefully resonate in a way that opens up the possibilities of meaning for each. These images portray the transition into young adulthood with the perspective of someone who has already been through it.
To a certain extent I know what lies ahead – that the coming of age never arrives without a loss of youth and freedom. There is a certain melancholy that comes with this knowledge but I didn’t want to get swept up in nostalgia and lose the energy and excitement that comes with being young. I hoped to maintain tension between youth and it’s loss. The only way for me to realize this was to work collaboratively with the kids in the neighborhood and create photographs together. In a certain sense, the book combines their youth with my sense of its loss. Paddy, who is in his early 30’s and just starting his own family brought his own perspective and many of the stories used in the comic came from the mother’s of the kids in the photographs.
The book ends with an argument, a dialogue between you and one of the teens portrayed on this project – Eirn – regarding a photograph of her that you want to feature on the book but she really doesn’t want you to. From this experience, how do you think one’s perception on their own portrait differs from what the general public sees? It is quite interesting how it shows two sides, discussing the exact same image, in such opposite ways.
In the book, you never actually get to see the picture Eirn and I are arguing about. The photograph is covered by the text of our argument, which is a transcription of the audio recorded while Eirn looked through the book mock up.
Eirn had seen the photograph in question the summer before and I could tell she was anxiously waiting to see if and where it would appear in the book. I knew she didn’t like the photograph but despite her objections, which I dismissed as simple vanity, I felt the image provided the perfect ending for the book. I was right about the ending but wrong regarding Eirn’s vanity.
Her arguments against the photograph were presented with such conviction that I gave her the last word – and since she also coined the title, “[it’s] my last day at seventeen” when I made her portrait on the eve of her 18th birthday – Eirn’s voice quite literally frames the entire body of work.
What’s at stake for Eirn is the risk that the photograph would define her — it’s a risk everyone in the book is taking, but Eirn understands that her risk is amplified considerably by ending the book with her photograph. Her refusal is poignant because she doesn’t have the happiest of memories for that time in her life and political in that she is critical of how she may be mis-perceived by others. She states in no uncertain terms that she looks like a knacker — a pejorative slang term for working class Irish. Her reading of this image calls into question any easy or quick interpretation of the photographs and the comic illustrations. Hopefully her words will send you back into the book with fresh eyes and nuanced understanding of people and lives depicted.