Let’s get this out of the way first. What stoked the fascination in shooting these random advertisements on the roadsides of Ireland?
I had lots of out of date 120 film and had recently purchased a new medium format point and shoot camera – the Fujifilm GA645zi. I was looking for a project that would suit the portability of the camera and the potential uncertainty of the results that come with shooting expired film.
I travel a lot with work and on long, sometimes boring, drives these haphazard, DIY signs began to pique my interest. How they reveal themselves out of nowhere in the middle of fields and the bizarre interactions they form with the countryside around them. Not just on motorways but on all types of roads. The unpredictable tricks they use to garner attention.
On doing some research, I found that, generally, they don’t have planning permission. So, the reason a lot of them are on wheels is that, if ordered to, they can be moved quickly.
It became a bit of a game to find and photograph them. On seeing one I just pull over, put the hazards on, hop out and shoot as fast as possible. It has led to a few hair-raising moments as trucks and cars fly by doing 120 plus. I’ve been shouted at, beeped at and cursed at while jumping over barriers, climbing through ditches, clambering up the sides of bridges as bemused livestock occasionally look on.
The signs are really functional, handmade, rough and ready. The effects on the expired film of occasional fogging, added grittiness, grain or vignetting really suited this aesthetic. At first, I thought I’d employ a typographical approach to documenting them – ensuring the same camera height and angle, same size in frame etc. This quickly became a bit too prescriptive, so I began to photograph them as I found them, whether that be up close or faraway.
When and where did you pull in and shoot the first one?
Sometime in the early summer of 2018, somewhere along the M9 near Kilkenny. Set against a fence in front of a hillock there is a trailer with a sign for The National Reptile Zoo. I wasn’t aware that Ireland has a National Reptile Zoo.
The sign includes a picture of a crocodile and some type of long-tailed lizard. At a certain angle it looks like the crocodile is straddling the top of the fence while the lizard ambles down the hillock.
How long have you been working on the series?
On and off for three years. I keep the camera and film in the car all the time so I’m always at the ready to shoot. So not just shooting them on work travels, but also on holidays and weekends away. My wife has a lot of patience especially when a two-hour journey becomes a four-and-a-half-hour off-piste odyssey with multiple stops – none of which are for 99s.
What’s your criteria for stopping? What makes a sign so good you just can’t miss it?
I’d like to say only when it is safe to do so – but that wouldn’t exactly be true!
They must be non-authorised, non-traditional advertising. So no 48 sheets or billboards. The more DIY elements the better. I think all the signs are eye catching in different ways. The crazy colour combinations, disagreeable fonts, bad spacing and whimsical layouts, the long lists and hyped up offers. They seem to have their own vernacular. On some that have been in situ for a long time the faded images and weathered text add another element of interest.
I was determined to photograph all across the country covering a range of different products and services. The project includes ads for burgers, diets, furniture stores, weed killers, bingo nights, cafes and flight training academies. Originally, it was just HGV trailers but then I began to notice and include other signs on battered vans, palettes, repurposed election posters, bits of plywood and skips.
Is any trip on any road safe for your partner and offspring? Have they adopted the same curiosity for these random happenings or do they look to heaven in dismay while you bolt to the verge to capture another advertisement?
Like I said my wife has a lot of patience for my whims. This patience could be tested when I say I’ll be only gone for a minute and then I’m gone for 15 all the while cars and trucks whizz by at breakneck speed, occasionally beeping loudly. Since recently becoming a father, I have discovered that my daughter may not possess the same levels of patience as her mother…However, I am considering training her to become an assistant sign spotter! As regulations around road safety become ever tougher, these effective but basic forms of guerrilla marketing will probably die off or be left to wither in their fields.
What’s the plan for the project outside of the Instagram feed?
The long term aim is to print a book. We may even announce its publication on our very own trailer in a long field somewhere in the midlands!
Some of the images feature signs that have completely faded away or fallen apart. A future project could document these decaying signs as they slowly become subsumed back into nature.
The work is at odds with the care, craft and high defined work you do commercially. Is your approach different to this series versus how you take on client and commercial work, or do you see them in another way?
Projects like this provide a counterpoint to commissioned work. I approach them with the same precision but a different process. These images are shot on film as opposed to digital. So, there is less immediacy and none of the deadline pressure that can be omnipresent in the commercial sphere.
Oftentimes, commissioners are more curious about your personal work and what interests and amuses you. So, personal work can very much inform your commercial work and vice versa.
Your three favourite driving songs and why…
First to come to mind is a festive one
Happy memories of driving home for the festive period in the first car I ever owned and loudly singing along.
The first time I remember hearing this song was on a mix a mate had made for me before I moved to New York. Stuck it on while driving to Philadelphia one weekend and it’s been a firm favourite ever since.
No matter who is in the car they can sing along to this one and it immediately puts you in a good mood!
Have you ever followed one of the signs on a whim to see what was at the end of the roadside rainbow?
Just outside Mullingar on the N4 there is a white, beat up trailer with the words ‘The Covert’ hauntingly emblazoned in red on the side. No other context. I thought it could be anything – an old curio shop, a fishing tackle supplier, an ad for the Irish Secret Service!
Determined, I slipped off the road and was soon disappointed to discover that The Covert is a local bar and restaurant which, unfortunately, is now closed. A real shame, as it looks like the perfect place for a line dance.
Do you think once you get these done it will be the end of the road of you continue living like The Littlest Hobo?
Well, there’s a voice that keeps on calling me….