Witnessing the evolution of Irishness in “In Our Own Image: Photography and the Social Gaze”

Ilaria Riccio reviews the photo exhibition “In Our Own Image: Photography and the Social Gaze” and its social content.

A rainy, grey afternoon in early October seems the perfect atmosphere for an immersion into Irish culture. This winter-like weather, with dim daylight coming through the glass windows of the Irish Photo Museum, metaphorically matches the content of the exhibition In Our Own Image: Photography and the Social Gaze: an outlook on the evolution of Irishness, emphasising the dark sides but always ready to welcome the light. 

The fourth instalment of the In Our Own Image series focuses specifically on Irish society: the collective of photographers involved in the exhibition provides a commentary on ever-evolving cultural and social practices through the immortalisation of the lives of ordinary Irish citizens. From nods to religion and the (still) complex relationship with the UK, to issues of migration and gender, the exhibition offers breath-taking stills that mesmerise viewers whilst inviting them to reflect deeper on the content of the photographs. 

For instance, the gloomy stills of the series “I went to the worst bars hoping to get killed but all I could do is get drunk again” by Ciarán Óg Arnold capture the desperation of economic hardship, hinting at alcohol as a refuge against it. Taking its title from the lines of a poem by Charles Bukowski, the darkness of the pictures mirrors the desperation of their subjects trapped in an endless cycle of self-destruction. The room feels dimly lit as these photographs occupy the back wall, staring back at the viewers who poignantly learn about a gloomy reality. Furthermore, the darkness engulfs the subjects of the pictures, some elements are only barely visible; this style is the perfect metaphor for the content of this series: a reality everyone is aware of but few truly know of. 

Another piece of social commentary comes from selected stills from Richard Gosnold’s It Starts with Silence. Inspired by the photographer’s personal experience, these pictures denounce the struggles to access abortion in Northern Ireland. These protest photographs are particularly relevant now that conversations around abortion are at the forefront of social and political agendas in multiple Western countries. Through these testimonials, viewers have the opportunity to reflect on what it means not to be able to access abortion, even when it is the only viable option. Striking, in this respect, is the piece of paper tracking the disproportionate expenses of abortion-related travel and treatments. Thus, in an exhibition centred on social change, this focus on abortion reveals that some topics remain complex and invites viewers to reflect on (and challenge) existing norms.  

This focus on abortion is only one of the nods to notions of gender in the exhibition; in particular, the juxtaposition of works from different photographers maps the evolution of the idea of gender, both at the individual level and on a broader social scale. For example, Pàdraig Spillane’s Throwing Back deconstructs representations of masculinity through images collected during so-called “mirror therapy” (the use of mirrors to obtain different perspectives of body parts). Next to these stills is a photograph by Charlie Beare from the series Man Enough, a testimonial of queer masculinity; put up against the same walls, these images together destabilise hegemonic representations of masculinity and introduce viewers to ways of “being a man” that would otherwise be concealed. 

The changing perception of gender is also offered through the female lens. Three images by Ruth Gonsalves Moore present shots of the covered heads of three women, as viewed from above. These images document the religious practice of head-covering in Northern Ireland, a set of regulations targeted specifically at women. Specifically, the faces of the subjects of these photos are not shown, thus suggesting the concealment of the feminine identity and subjectivity from public view. Conversely, the wall covered in a hundred polaroid pictures, collected by Dragana Juriši?, exemplifies the power of female representation made by women: the pictures portray a hundred women posing in the nude in a variety of poses (as the photographer told the “muses” to self-direct). Thus, the women were not there to be objectified (by the photographer and later by viewers) but simply to enjoy themselves in a celebration of the female body: not only is this collection made by a woman, but it also moves beyond the idea of the perfect female form by presenting a multitude of body types, each beautiful in its own way. Therefore, thanks to these different representations of masculinity and femininity, the exhibition challenges dominant ideas on gender, portraying the endless possibilities of self-expression against sets of gender-specific norms and behaviours. 

Alongside questions of gender, the exhibition also tackles matters of race: as the selected photographs narrate the evolution of Irish society, earlier representations with predominantly white subjects make room for disparate cultures and ethnicities, documenting a society that is changing not only in relation to customs and beliefs, but also demographically. These developments are evident in a series of photographs portraying families made up of people who have been living in Ireland since they were children, and whose children's only way of life is the Irish one. At the same time, however, the negative sides of migration are present, too, in two photos taken in refugee centres. In this way, the exhibition presents Irish society as a welcoming world for immigrants, whilst suggesting that there is still a long way to go towards full integration. 

To conclude, In Our Own Image: Photography and the Social Gaze perfectly captures a society that is constantly changing, adapting to the present through an openness towards multiculturalism, and the overcoming of stereotypical gender representations. Simultaneously, economic hardship and other struggles are still a reality for ordinary Irish citizens, balancing the positives in a thorough exploration of modern Ireland. But the hope for a bright side is not lost; just like the rainbow that comes after the rain, so will the light shine on the dark side of Irishness.