There is a certain romance about turning Sweet 16 but being 17, going on 18, is a different matter altogether.
Pondering his own youth in New Jersey, that’s what American photographer Doug DuBois discovered when his month-long artistic residency turned into a , Co Cork.
The result, My Last Day at Seventeen, is a graphic account of the growing pains of the young residents of Russell Heights, capturing the coming of age drama of a working-class community in Cobh.
The photographs, taken between the summer of 2009 and 2014, track the transition from the adventure of childhood and the freedom and promise that adolescence bestows to the hopes of tomorrow and the anxiety of youthful adulthood.
His muse is Eirn, whose utterance “It’s my last day at 17” gave him the title for his book as he photographed her in her parent’s back garden on the eve of her 18th birthday.
“The photographs here look at the bravado and adventure of childhood with an eye towards its fragility and inevitable loss,” DuBois writes.
He takes artistic licence with his charges. ‘Jumping the Wall’ is no one-off snapshot but a carefully managed and contrived re-enactment of the kinds of childhood activity he encountered a year before.
In many of the photographs, he gets the youngsters to re-create scenes that eluded his camera first-time round.
“The project is a mix of classic documentary technique and form with digital tools and, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a contemporary understanding of photography, subjectivity and truth,” he says.
DuBois told Time magazine: “If I were to apply a literary analogy to the Irish work, I would call it creative non-fiction.
“The kids were playing the way they do every summer,” he says, describing the mimicing of images he had seen earlier as “collaborative” with his subject.
“I would argue the truth is in this collaboration, not just out there in the world waiting for me to capture it on film.”
DuBois was in Cobh at the invitation of the Sirius Arts Centre at a time when the full import of recession was beginning to be felt.
It came from fellow American Peggy Sue Amison who had been artistic director of Sirius for 13 years, before taking on the same position at East Wing, an art gallery in Dubai.
DuBois’s project ignited when Eirn and her friend Kevin — born only a day apart — took him to a place they called ‘the steps’ — the gateway to Russell Heights, and opened the eyes of a middle-aged American to the world of Irish adolescents as they stood on the cusp of adulthood.
An exhibition of the images and the launch of the book will take place at Crawford Art Gallery Cork on Monday, November 9, at 4pm. The exhibition is open to the public from November 10 until January 23.
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