“It raises questions about gender roles, the performativity of identity and who we are, but also about photographer, subject relations…” – Daragh Soden
Daragh Soden is somewhat reticent to talk about his forthcoming exhibition as part of the PhotoIreland Festival. He really wants Ladies and Gentlemen, his new body of work to speak for itself, to allow viewers to encounter and interpret it on their own terms. But most of all to evoke a sense of questioning and curiosity about what they see before them and how they relate to it. In many respects, this show is a homecoming of sorts for the photographer and artist who can trace his connections to the city and initial exposure to the wider public through the festival.
Soden started out doing engineering in UCD, but whilst being mathematically-minded, realised it wasn’t necessarily the calling which set his pulses racing. “I kind of came across photography by accident through visiting galleries and reading up about it,” he says over a pint in Fibber’s beer garden on a sunny bank holiday Monday. “I started taking pictures with whatever the most affordable digital camera was out there. Having the camera was a great excuse to wander about like when you are on holidays and sit at a cafe on the side of the street and look at people going by, that’s how I got into documentary and portrait photography – real people and real stories is what fascinates me.”
After doing a film and TV production course in the Dun Laoghaire College of Further Education, he started reaching out to practitioners and “knew a guy whose sister was a photographer”. This e-mail led him to Yvette Monahan along with her partner Sean Breithaupt, photographers working out of South Studios at the time. I also happened to be based there at the time whilst working on Le Cool. “They were really supportive and had said it’s not essential to go to college to learn the craft.” He began assisting them whilst, over time, getting more experience with work in Windmill Lane and the Gallery of Photography. One thread which became evident to him is the connection between a good few documentary photographers he admired, such as Ivor Prickett, Rich Gilligan, Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Guy Martin, and a course in Newport in the University of Wales. He ended up submitting a portfolio and landing a place on the course.
Each summer he’s returned to Dublin, and this is where the genesis of his Young Dubliners series was born. “I had borrowed a camera for the summer – a Bronica SQ-A – one you look down into. Film was expensive then, so I would only take a picture if it was worth the cost. It was a really good lesson in that you had to think before you shot.” Soden began hanging out with kids as they free-wheeled through their summer – hanging out, having the craic and living their best carefree existence in that moment in time.
“At first I was really nervous, but once I explained I was in university that seemed to make it easier.” Visiting places familiar to him – the Forty Foot, Ballybrack, Stillorgan Shopping Centre, Dollymount, Jobstown, Marino, Dolphins Barn, Seapoint, Firhouse – “all over really, the same sort of places where we might have hung out when I was younger.” Soden would shoot but not look at what he’d taken until back in Newport in the autumn. Eventually, he ended up having his ‘Bus Couple’ image published in the Le Cool e-zine and applied to the New Irish Works series by PhotoIreland which led to an exhibition in the Library Project.
Meanwhile, his work was also beginning to pick up international recognition winning the British Journal of Photography undergraduate competition. One of the judges, Bruno Bayley from Vice, said of Bus Couple: “It’s a very tender picture. There’s a lovely dynamic between the two people in the picture, and there’s a timelessness to it; it’s difficult to place where and when the picture was taken. Young people get a lot of flak these days, but the image felt warm and celebratory and uplifting.” Then came his launchpad moment when he ended up scooping the prestigious Hyères Grand Prix du Jury Photography Prize in 2017 for the empowering series. This afforded him the chance to strike out on his own, landing a follow-up commission from the festival and Parisian publishing house Be-Poles to be part of their Portraits de Villes series exploring towns in France. With this, he found himself in Toulon using his “outsider perspective” to create a series of portraits around this naval base.
Meanwhile, back in Peckham where Soden has based himself for the last number of years, he was invited by Karen McQuaid, a curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, to create work for an exhibition about Soho. “They wanted someone to shoot Soho Now and I made a body of work called Looking for Love which was a series of analog photos and prints, a short Super 8 film and a series of lightboxes made from screenshots from gay dating apps. Soho has a history of being the bleeding heart of the LGBTQ community in the UK, Old Compton Street was a safe haven, Soho was the Grindr before Grindr existed.”
Commercial work started rolling in from the likes of Le Monde, Holiday magazine and A.P.C. with Soden finding his aesthetic en vogue with the fashion world. “The more I did, the more technically astute and aesthetically accomplished I became. When I started, there was tension between them (the commercial and personal), now that has dissolved. The tension is now reconciled and I recognise the benefit of one to the other.”
In his “downtime”, he found himself starting a new project based around the drag community which has led to Ladies and Gentlemen. “It raises questions about gender roles, the performativity of identity and who we are, but also about photographer-subject relations. Even before people see the work, they will know I am in the work (his image is the lead for the festival).”
“I was drawn to these drag artists when I was in queer clubs because they expressed something – I felt that they were quite visual in their expression of their fluidity, of their performance, of their taking on of different identities,” says Soden. “Initially, the people in the photographs were exoticized in a way I didn’t want them to be. Drag is a very political but also personal act. Though it can also be very camp and flamboyant which can make it seem a bit frivolous. I wanted to capture the performance of the everyday.”
To this extent Soden chose to mostly document his subjects in their domestic environments with nods to the world they inhabit using a table as a stage, mirrors, spotlights and curtains. He also started exploring “the difference between the thing in the photograph and the photograph of the thing” and as such placing himself in the frame thereby questioning the ‘role’ of photographer and their part in the process. “It plays on ideas of how we perform in different ways through identity and also the performance in the act of photography – it’s questioning me, what I do for a living as a documentary photography but also a performer, is it all just a lie? It’s not just the performance and ‘perversion’ of gender. I am performing as well.”
Of course, the name of the exhibition is also a playful nod to dated theatricalities in the way audiences are greeted before performances, as well as Warholian. Asked whether he is nervous ahead of the exhibition, Soden refers to a line by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani about one being at their most creative whilst being most vulnerable. “That is the whole ethos of this work,” says Soden. He is also astutely aware of the recent stark reminders we currently have in Irish society about threats posed to the LGBTQ+ community as they go about the performance of their everyday.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Daragh Soden