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.”