I have an album
where I keep photos
of places I have lived
places I have visited
people I have known
people I have loved
are not in a book
not in a computer
not even on a memory stick
I keep them wirelessly
in my mind
By Paul Hansford
Every Thursday morning for the last number of weeks, a group have been looking at old photographs in the hope of writing about them. The white walls of the basement in Number 3 Mountjoy Square are a blank slate, ready to be filled with these pictures, mounted beside the stories, the poems and the memories of the group. The plan is to produce a permanent exhibition of sorts, to bring life to the photographs and create a story from them.
The photographs are mainly of scenes, places and people of 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s Dublin, sourced from local historians, donated from people or taken from newspapers or publications where they have appeared. For some in the group, they are a familiar picture of their childhood. For others, they know the people in the photographs and talk about what they remember. For most a photograph inspires a time and a place that they had forgotten about. We have heard stories of swimming in Spencer Dock, of going into a local shop for sweets like lucky lumps, a stick of rock, a chocolate cigarette. We have heard about the tight knit communities of the past, how the city was theirs for the taking – collecting old wheels to make a trolley for spinning down hills and over cobblestones, collecting winkles at the beach. We have heard about mothers hanging out washing and calling from balcony windows to children playing with hoops to ‘come in for their dinner’.
We have heard that our stories are at times different but mostly are all the same.
There is something about looking at an old photo. There are no words, yet we read it. We make assumptions about the faces staring back at us. We imagine who the people are in it. We wonder what life was like in the world of the photograph – the shoeless children, the aproned grandmothers smiling as the camera takes a snap. The shoulder-to-shoulder schoolchildren, the surprised old men standing on corners, one with a pipe, looking nonchalantly away from the camera. Or a group of children at the beach. Is the world in the photograph different to our world now and if it is, why?
Everyone has a photograph, people and places they know, of strange characters in the background or curiosities in the foreground. Or if not a photograph, everyone has a memory, a place that they want to write about or learn more from. All of us have questions to be answered – about our family, our community and about our world.
In a way, we ‘read’ photographs to look for the story. We do the same with the words in a book or in a newspaper article. We have questions we want answers to. We strive to link what we see to our story. Do we have a similar one? Do we have a different one? What is that about? What is that telling me? What do I understand?
The project has inspired many more questions and avenues of discovery. What was society like then? How widespread was poverty in the inner city? Why has the area changed so much in the government of Leo Varadkar that has perhaps allowed investors to come in and build fancy new apartments? Someone mentioned that there was a local resident’s community to allow people to air their views. Another asked how much power do locals have anyway about what happens in their street or local area? One man brought in an article about the housing crisis that we read in the group.
We also had unexpected learning too. Budgeting for one, as we had to work out the cost of buying frames in IKEA! One week a man in the group asked how to trace his family tree. He wanted to find to more about family history on his father’s side. One woman wrote a story she had forgotten. A story from the dusty corners of her mind about the ballroom in Parnell Street that she frequented in her youth, the place she met her husband. She looked into the middle distance and remembered her youth with a sigh. Her grandchildren were now that age and she concluded that nothing ever changes.
The group have been doing something much more profound and unexpected during this project, having their questions answered and developing their voice and creativity in a supportive environment. They have begun to unearth a world of possibilities to be read and to be learned about. The world of the personal, the public, a world of education. Learning can open a wealth of conversations – stories to tell and stories to read about. It is only the beginning.