“Youth is wasted on the young” is one of those clever-sounding, achingly wistful quips that have been attributed to various wags of assorted times and places, including the Irish writers Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Imagine if they had preserved their musings about life’s vicissitudes in Instagram snapshots or Twitter-brief jottings instead of plays, novels, poems and essays. Would their impressions of its most emotion-filled moments have fit neatly into tiny squares or the cryptic code of “U R my BFFL. ICFILWU. See U soon, F2F”?
The stuff of such awareness and an attempt to capture it lie at the heart of the American photographer Doug DuBois’s new book, My Last Day at Seventeen (Aperture Foundation). Its subject is the anxious anticipation among a group of Irish teenagers faced with change and their letting-go — or not — of a collective anchor of shared memories and experiences that defined their insular world of friendships, secrets and common rites of passage. (An exhibition of DuBois’s photos from the book will open next week at Crawford Art Gallery, a museum in Cork, Ireland, where it will remain on view through January 23, 2016.)
“This book is about the transition between childhood and adulthood, and you can literally see the anxiety it causes in their faces and gestures, and hear it in their talk,” DuBois told me in a recent interview. DuBois, who teaches photography at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was referring to Kevin, Eirn, Doug, Lenny and the other youths he befriended over a five-year period beginning in the summer of 2009 in the working-class Russell Heights housing estate (a residential neighborhood) in Cobh, a coastal town in County Cork, in southwestern Ireland. There, it took him a while before he found his unexpected, intangible subject or, more precisely, before it found him.
DuBois recalled, “I first went to Cobh for an artist’s residency at the Sirius Arts Centre; it lasted several weeks. My first book of photographs, …all the days and nights, had just come out. At first I had no idea what to do. I had no connection to Ireland. I had no agenda but I didn’t want to just wander around.” DuBois asked the cultural center’s director if perhaps he could develop a project involving people in the local community. She introduced him to some teenagers from Russell Heights (including Kevin and Eirn, who would become his links to their youthful world), most of whom had dropped out of high school. He got to know some members of this group of young people when they took part in a photography workshop he oversaw.
At the same time, DuBois kept scouting for a subject for a new photography project. The mood in Ireland in the summer of 2009 was grim; after the country’s “Celtic Tiger” boom period, its bubble economy, fueled by real-estate speculation and expansive bank lending, collapsed in late 2008. Subsequently, the unemployment rate soared, and emigration became the default option for many Irish people, especially the educated and ambitious. DuBois said, “I thought about doing something related to the crash, but emotions were still raw. I tried to get through to some real-estate developers, but nobody wanted to talk to me.”
DuBois uses a big, boxy, conventional-film camera with, he says, “four-by-five-inch negatives, a dark cloth over my head, a tripod, the whole works.” With such gear, he routinely needs the help of a skilled assistant, and during his first stay in Cobh, his collaborator was a young Irish photographer who helped him get to know the area. From Kevin and Eirn, DuBois learned about some local hangouts, too. On the lookout for interesting, potential subjects, he decided to check them out for himself.
One was a steep stone stairway that led from a hill down into the town. Known as “The Steps,” the site was a favorite gathering place for young people. From there, DuBois said, “the late-evening, summer light looked beautiful.” Already known to some of the youths as the foreigner who was associated with the arts center, he was gradually accepted by the regulars at the popular “bush-drinking” spot.
DuBois noted, “My first picture was of Lenny, a kid with such an innocent face. I got right up close to him. In this photograph, which is in the book, he’s smoking and wearing a white hoodie, projecting bravura and toughness, but you can sense his vulnerability. This picture became a touchstone for the whole project.” Still, it was not until later that first summer that whatever DuBois seemed to be pursuing finally came into sharp focus. He told me that, one day, after having attended many of the teenagers’ get-togethers, he found himself with Kevin and Eirn as they celebrated Eirn’s eighteenth birthday. Aware of her uncertain future but still tethered to her childhood past, the young woman sighed and said, “I feel like it’s my last day at seventeen.”
“As soon as she spoke, I had my title,” DuBois recalled. “The whole project suddenly fell into place. It was now clear to me that what I was observing was something invisible, the process of transition between childhood and adulthood.”
Subsequently, each summer over the next several years, he returned to Cobh, bringing prints of his photos to share with the Russell Heights youths. He continued photographing them. However, he pointed out emphatically, describing the unfolding project that led to My Last Day at Seventeen, “I’m not a social reformer. In shooting these pictures, I had no agenda. They might borrow from the rhetoric of documentary photography, but I’m not a documentary photographer or a photojournalist.” DuBois said that, instead, he found himself “working like a storyteller, creating something that was based in truth.” Sometimes, he explained, “I even gave the kids some direction, like one time when I asked one to jump up on a wall. That’s not journalism.”
The book opens with a shot of a shirtless, skinny boy lying outside on a sunny day. Many of DuBois’s images show his subjects gazing directly at the camera, including a young woman in a gray hoodie holding a big cooking pot; another with freckled cheeks and a cautious, probing look, grasping a plastic drinking cup; Eirn and Kevin together in a doorway, in sweatpants; a little girl in a pink jumpsuit standing like a sentry on a patch of grass; shirtless boys with tattooed chests; and girls in stylish mini-dresses, with their faces made up, ready to head out to parties or to go out on dates. DuBois captures or sometimes poses his subjects in moments of camaraderie or laid-back, summertime repose: a long-haired boy perched on a metal railing, rolling his own cigarette; a young mother, her teenage daughter and her newest baby; boys kicking a soccer ball; other boys cavorting on an old gazebo; and a group of older youths drinking beer and goofing off with a gun (whether or not it is a toy is not clear; one teen points it at his own mouth, then aims it at his buddy’s head).
An unexpected component of My Last Day at Seventeen, which appears between various sequences of its color photos, is a series of brief story vignettes presented in comic-book form. Drawn by the Irish illustrator Patrick Lynch, they feature the recollections of an unidentified narrator who looks back at incidents in his young life against the backdrop of the collective life of the Russell Heights group. Other characters appear, too, including two young women who go to a downtown shop to look at baby carriages. One of them is pregnant, with a baby due soon but without the means, either alone or presumably with the man who fathered her child, to afford the costly pram she covets. On the train back home, the two friends sit in silence, as the pregnant woman rubs her swollen belly.
Some of the other comics are marked by an air of mystery and foreboding. When read carefully in sequence, they lead up to a stunning denouement, but it would be the mother of all spoilers to even begin to describe the character of the atmosphere that frames them. (Their subtlety might require a few readings to reveal their complete, collective meaning. In fact, the whole book unveils itself fully only through repeated examinations. For example, not until the brief transcript of a conversation involving DuBois, Eirn and some of her pals, which appears at the end of the book, is it made explicit that the entire photo-story has taken place in Ireland.)
About the book’s comic-style illustrations, DuBois said, “Those images and the way they’re narrated — they’re about coming of age and what’s at stake in doing so. They’re about how you make that transition that can affect the rest of your life.” I asked him if, over the years of his association with the Russell Heights youths, he might have acquired a sense of the kinds of prospects they faced as they confronted adulthood.
“By the time I stopped seeing them regularly, some were in their early twenties and had left for England in search of work,” he explained. “Theirs was a close-knit community, in which neighbors looked out for each other. As kids, they had grown up during the Celtic Tiger period, but now they were facing the kind of hard reality their parents had known in the past. For many, emigration had once again become the only option if they wanted to survive.”
A few Irish writers who examined My Last Day at Seventeen shared some illuminating comments with me about the broader social-economic situation in Ireland today and their impressions of DuBois’s photographs. Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork, a city to the west of Cobh, and today lives in its suburbs. The title tale in his most recent collection of stories, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (New Island Books, 2013) won Ireland’s Writing.ie Short Story of the Year award in 2013. O’Callaghan told me that Cobh, where DuBois shot his pictures, “is a place defined by the ocean, with a long seafaring history.” The “coffin ships” that took destitute Irish families fleeing the famine of the 1840s to the United States and Australia sailed from its port.
Callaghan noted that the faces that appear in DuBois’s photos are those “you can expect to find on council estates the length and breadth of Ireland.” (Council estates are housing projects administered by local governments.) His photos, the writer added, “capture a sense of the quiet desolation and even desperation” that can be found among those who occupy “society’s lowest rungs,” not the “bankers and businessmen who run the cities” but rather those whose lives are “small” and in which “there’s generally not a lot of room for ambition.”
Aoife Casby, a poet and visual artist based in County Galway in western Ireland, said she sees in DuBois’s photographs “kids who look like kids in housing estates all over Ireland. They seem to be fearless, at least on the outside. Summer — that long break from school was and is magical and nerve-wracking.” Of changing social attitudes, she noted, “Thankfully, it is different [today] than it was in my day. [Nowadays,] girls have babies and stay in their communities and go to college. The boys are involved. It’s no longer the taboo it once was. Seventeen is still very young to be having a baby but it’s not the end of opportunity or the ostracizing, horribly secretive event it once was.”
Casby, who has a background in psychology and has worked in the community-development field, said she senses among DuBois’s subjects the same yearnings she has recognized among others of their generation. “They want jobs, college, security,” she observed.
Because DuBois’s images focus on their subjects’ faces, bodies in motion or at rest, and small-group interactions, without providing documentary-style information about the conditions and character of their broader environment, there is something hermetic-feeling about their world as it is depicted in the book.
In his most recent stories collection, Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013), the Irish writer Alan McMonagle has described the psychic-emotional toll the economic crash of the late 2000s has taken on his countrymen. After examining DuBois’s new book, he said, “with its shortcut alleys, graffiti-covered walls, impromptu speakers’ corner and assorted battlegrounds,” the small world of the Russell Heights youths appears to be the “kind of arena in which the theater of life is played out in all its close-knit glory.”
Similarly, DuBois told me that, almost as soon as he began getting to know his young subjects, he could sense some complex, overlapping strains of real-life drama that bound many of them and their families together. Inevitably it informed the spirit of his photos.
“I wasn’t trying to make a book about Irish youth or even the young people of Cobh or Russell Heights per se,” he explained. “What I created was a fiction, a lyrical story set in summer about a moment we all know, when you’re just about to take that first step and become an adult. I’m basking in that moment.”
In My Last Day at Seventeen, that moment is at once bittersweet and urgent, languorous and daunting — a slow-moving, time-killing, endless summer, in which, at least until life’s seasons irrevocably change, one can dare to dream of remaining forever young.
Doug DuBois: My Last Day at Seventeen will be on view at the Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland) from November 10, 2015 through January 23, 2016.