Creative Nonfiction: Capturing Adolescence in Post-Recession Ireland

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Doug DuBois
"Lenny," the first picture Doug DuBois made for his series "My Last Day at Seventeen." Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because life is sweet and they are growing. —Aristotle

To say that Doug DuBois stumbled onto his most recent project, “My Last Day at Seventeen,” would not be wholly incorrect, but it would certainly belie his use of one of a photographer’s most important tools: persistence. For four summers, the Michigan-born DuBois served as artist-in-residence at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Ireland, running workshops with “at risk” teenagers. And for four years, he took his camera to the insular, working-class, public-housing community of Russell Heights, capturing that most fleeting of phenomena: the apogee of youth.

Cobh is a town on the southern coast of Ireland with a long maritime history, serving as both the Titanic’s last port-of-call and the final resting place of many who perished aboard the ocean liner Lusitania. Yet DuBois was not interested in shooting anything “quaint and nostalgic,” as he puts it—he wanted something that spoke to the present, something grounded in the “now.” His initial idea was to photograph the considerable number of empty or unfinished houses in Ireland at the time. 

Ireland’s heady economic rise in the 1990s and 2000s, when the country was the so-called Celtic Tiger, was inextricably linked to real estate speculation and a concurrent building boom. When the bubble burst in 2008, it left the country riddled with half-finished construction projects and empty buildings. Despite DuBois’s efforts, his idea of documenting the unoccupied or unfinished homes never really got off the ground because developers and property owners were simply unwilling to let him in.

As part of his artist’s residency DuBois had asked the director of the Sirius Arts Centre, Peggy Sue Amison, to allow him to teach a class to members of the community. She created a photography course for local teenagers who had dropped out of school. Desperate to shoot something, DuBois asked his students to take him to their neighborhoods. The resulting excursion to a local teenage drinking spot seemed like another dead end initially, DuBois relates, as he found out that “photographs of carousing Irish kids are just as cliche as quaint villages with colorful doors and misty streets.” Then, in the fragile haze of twilight, DuBois convinced a teenager named Lenny to pose for long enough for him to make a picture. 

Neatly clipped hair beneath a hoodie, smooth face and steady eyes diffused through a thin filter of gray smoke, that image would become the blueprint for the next four years of DuBois’s artistic life. “His face—its openness and bravura—offers a world of experience, and by extension, an opportunity to contemplate what it means to come of age in Ireland at this particular moment,” DuBois says. The title for the series came just a week later when Eirn, one of the students who had taken him on that formative expedition, asked DuBois to shoot her in the dress she intended to wear to an upcoming eighteenth birthday party. As he set up the shot, she exclaimed that it was her “last day at 17.” 

When he returned for his second summer in Cobh, DuBois had a clear vision of his new project. He would shoot not just on the Russell Heights council estates, but in a specific area confined to just a few rows of homes. He would continue to take more informal photos, but painstakingly directed scenes became an important component of the project. He would not shy away from digitally combining different frames into one image. DuBois uses the analogy of creative nonfiction in the literary world to explain his “mix of documentary and fictional techniques to get at the truth of the matter.” Every summer when he returned to Russell Heights, DuBois passed out prints of the work he had shot the year before to the kids involved, often having them recreate images that he had shot on the fly the previous year.

Of course, perseverance and meticulous planning can only go so far when one is dealing with human subjects. Four years is a long time, and for restless teenagers it might as well be an eternity. DuBois is candid in discussing what he calls the “arc” of “access and tolerance I could expect from the people I photographed” while working in Cobh. At first, some were “intrigued” by the novelty of being photographed by a quirky foreigner, but those same qualities made others wary and hostile. That suspicion eased as time passed and DuBois became something of a neighborhood fixture. But by the end of the third and all through his fourth year in Russell Heights, that newness had worn off and he began to feel as though he had worn out his welcome with more than a few of his subjects. By the end, some of the adolescents would see him coming and immediately start backing away, muttering about “that fucking American.” 

DuBois laughs it off as something he both understood and expected. “Being photographed is a pain in the ass—I hate having my picture taken,” he says. “Even if you like the results, the process demands time and a willingness to be directed, hold still, gesture, or engage a certain expression again and again.” Furthermore, capturing children on the cusp of adulthood meant that he could leave Cobh with photographs of a precocious girl and return to find a recalcitrant young woman with a host of new priorities. 

This past October the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh hosted an exhibition of “My Last Day at Seventeen.” True to form, even on the night of his show, the ever-persistent DuBois walked up the hill from the arts center to Russell Heights attempting to “corral people” to come to the opening. He found the kids were uncomfortable with the idea of being “seen,” and were wary of “posh people,” who they assumed would be there. DuBois reckons that only a “brave minority” of Russell Heights made it to the opening night in Cobh. To his surprise though, the next day there was a steady turnout from the neighborhood, and they kept coming throughout the show’s run. 

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