PhotoIreland 2012 In Focus: David Monahan

Sarah Allen
Posted July 9, 2012 in Arts & Culture Features

July has gotten a whole lot better since PhotoIreland began three years ago. Transforming Dublin into a photography mecca through its all-encompassing programme of exhibitions, book fairs and portfolio reviews, the festival provides the infrastructure needed to encourage photographic practices in Ireland, as well as some aesthetic nourishment. This year, the programme is loosely held together by a theme of ‘Migration’. We spoke to a cross-section of participating photographers about their work: Dinu LiJean Revilliard, Isabelle Pateer and David Monahan, as part of a series we’re running across the week.

Under the guise of night, Irish photographer David Monahan has spent over a year snapping Irish emigrants bound for greener pastures…our forty shades just don’t cut the mustard anymore! Dublin city became the stage transformed through theatrical spot-lit compositions – the sole protagonist: the soon to be expat and the only prop? A well-worn suitcase. We spoke with David about his fantastic project Leaving Dublin which should in turn speak to anyone who has felt the sting of the Irish mass exodus.

Where did the idea for this body of work come from?

I put out a request for people who were emigrating to get in touch and the response was great. The project has a lot to do with my own family history too; I didn’t realise that I was happy to see the end of emigration until the cycle began again.

There’s that kind of dichotomy in the photos too, they’re sad but at the same time quite optimistic…
I’m trying to celebrate the subject and I want to show them in a heroic light. I’m also consciously trying to make something that’s theatrical and shows a level of consideration and hopefully as a result the viewer will bestow a level of respect upon the subjects.

What is the significance of shooting at night-time?
Shooting at night really heightens the sense of drama. I’m also playing with the idea that landscapes can sometimes become invisible. By shooting at night I can paint in my own light which gives the opportunity to twist things from the real, not so much into the surreal but perhaps the unreal.

Is it as much a catalogue of the city as of the people?
I suppose it is. What’s interesting about the project is that it captures aspects of the city that are changing. For example one of the photos is taken in Smithfield but the only clue that it’s Smithfield are those Bertie-era lamps.

You have a blog too (, do you think that it’s important for photographers to discuss their work in a public forum?
It’s an interesting way to allow your images to be circulated and it does create an extra dynamic and depth to your work. For me it has been crucial. The fact that somebody from CBS News got in touch 6 months after I started shooting is a testament to the blog’s reach. My feeling is the work is meant to be shown in a print exhibition – that’s when it will really hit home and generate a tangible reaction.

It will turn into art! How would you classify your work if you had to stick a label on it?
There is a bit of a paradox with my work because it’s documentary but it’s also staged. So therein lies an immediate contradiction. It’s many things really: historical, sociological, emotive… it’s kind of straddling all those classifications.

Photography is still misunderstood in Ireland in many ways, how important are festivals such as PhotoIreland?

They’re hugely important and festivals like these are needed because there still seems to be a lack of understanding of photography and its place. PhotoIreland has had a dramatic effect within two or three years and the model they have is fantastic.

Finally, Totally Dublin compiled a list of 200 reasons to stay in Dublin not too long ago, what would be top of your list?

The cycle to work down North Frederick Street or Dominic Street to the city centre. The speed brings pure joy powered by the incline! Coming home – not such fun!


David Monahan’s work will be on show as part of the Living – Leaving exhibition at the National Photographic Archive from July 5th to 22nd.


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