Over the course of five summers, Doug DuBois photographed teenagers living in public housing in a small Irish city of Cobh, depicting scenes of the kids drinking, carousing and coping with the boredom and restlessness that characterizes the period between childhood and adulthood. Photos from the project, published in his book My Last Day at Seventeen (honored in the 2016 PDN Photo Annual) were shown at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph alongside Olivia Bee’s images of teenagers in exhibition curated by photographer Phil Toledano. While Bee’s romantic photographs show her friends and contemporaries, DuBois made his images in Cobh by collaborating with “a core group of players” he’d gotten to know and who were willing to act out scenarios or suggest scenes for him to photograph. The project, DuBois told PDN in an interview, was not “documentary” or “diaristic”; it represents his subjective view of the place, the teens and his interaction with them. He likens it to literary nonfiction or memoir.
In all his work, Dubois says, “subjectivity is at the forefront.” His 2009 book, All the Days and Nights, about tensions in his family, included photos he made of his mother reenacting moments DuBois had witnessed. “It’s like the movies say, ‘Based on a true story,’” he says. About his Cobh project, he says, “Invention is too strong a word, but I would say it’s my story based on their lives and how I saw them and what I understood and what I didn’t understand.” But while it is his own story, DuBois felt a responsibility to depict his subjects in a way that they would recognize.
He first arrived in Cobh in 2009 as the recession was taking hold. He had accepted a month-long residency, and had agreed to hold a community photo workshop with some local teens. “I asked them to take me to where they hung out,” he recalls. “I spent one long night encountering 15-year-olds some of whom were very drunk.” Dubois, who shoots with large- and medium-format cameras, got up close to a boy named Lenny and, while other kids joked and teased, asked him to blow smoke from his cigarette. In the close-up portrait, Lenny is bemused and looking tough. DuBois recalls, “I said: This is the image. It’s all about the bravado. You can see his past as a child and his future.”
Most of the photos were shot within just a few blocks of the local public housing estates. For the kids he was photographing, he says, “Anywhere you grow up, it’s your entire world.” Through his framing, composition, lighting and post production, he captured their world and “made it larger than life.”
DuBois also photographed scenarios suggested by the kids themselves: Jordan was about to shimmy up a lamppost when he asked DuBois to photograph him. At other times, DuBois would suggest something for the kids to do, then find it was in “the moment it fell apart” that he caught a gesture or body language that looked “graceful” or suggestive of a larger story. DuBois hired a local art student to work as his assistant and hold lights. “I was a middle-aged man photographing under-age kids, so to have another person there was good,” he says.
He wanted to avoid duplicating clichés about Ireland or life in public housing projects (known in Ireland and the UK as “council estates”). He made rules for himself: “I didn’t want to photograph kids explicitly drinking, because it plays into stereotype,” he says. “No photographs of teenage mothers holding babies or pushing prams. No overt counsel estate grit.”
After one of the girls he had photographed, Shauna, had a baby, he asked to visit her with his cameras. He first made some portraits he gave her as mementoes, but he also wanted a photo for himself. He suggested she put the baby on the floor and stare at it. She chose to put the baby down in her bedroom and, while she sat on the edge of her bed, DuBois made photos in which she appears to size up the strange little creature that had dropped into her life.
His personal and art projects have sometimes attracted the attention of editorial clients. Before accepting an assignment, he always explains to editors that he sets up and composites images. Depending on the story or the publication, some editors then decide not to work with him, but he has shot assignments for The Telegraph, GQ, Details and Geo. “You are there generally to illustrate and move forward a story that’s already written,” he says. He sees parallels between the way he creates photos and the way writers choose descriptive details and quotes to create metaphors or underline themes in their articles. “You’re making narrative, and that’s by definition a fiction. I think there’s only a nominal difference between setting up a picture and Tom Wolfe writing the dialogue as if it were a novel and making metaphors.”
On magazine assignments, he wants to help the writer communicate with readers. With his Cobh work, he says, he felt an obligation both to the residents and to people outside who would know the place only through his photos. “The hardest thing about the book was to speak to two audiences and give respect to both.”
In 2014, he exhibited his photos in the arts center in Cobh and made an edition of the book he could give away. The Aperture edition of the book ends with an edited transcript of an argument DuBois had (and recorded) with one subject, Erin. Reviewing an earlier draft of the book, she tells DuBois that she hates the photo of her that appears on the book’s last page. DuBois tries to convince her it’s a photo of hope. She insists the photo shows “a knacker sitting behind dirty towels with a fucking fag in her hand with a tracksuit and runners.” DuBois says, “Erin’s poignant and adamant refusal to be the final image in the book speaks to the vulnerability of everyone I photographed and the precariousness and malleability of how photographs are seen and judged. Her argument demands respect — that’s why the script literally covers Eirn’s photograph on the last page.” In the end, Erin gets the last word.
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