David Monahan disscusses "On Leaving"

Irish photographer David Monahan visits D.C. during the week of April 21st (2014). You can find about his public talks here. Before he arrives we're delighted to introduce him on the Solas Nua Blog.

David's current project is called On Leaving. It began as a series of portraits called Leaving Dublin featuring emigrants the night before they left Ireland. At the moment David is following up on that work by traveling the world to photograph his sitters in their new homes, and taking pictures of the now empty locations of the original portraits.

David Monahan

Tell us about your work as a photographer?

I have worked as a photographer for about 17 years. Until about 5 years ago I worked mainly for cultural institutions like The National library of Ireland, The National Photographic Archive. This work ground to a halt in 2009 after an economic crash. Since then I have concentrated on personal projects.

What is “Leaving Dublin” and how did it come about?

Leaving Dublin is a series of 84 portraits of over 120 people who are about to emigrate from Ireland. It began when I decided to make a dramatic, heroic parting shot of my partner’s niece as she was about to emigrate. It occurred to me that a series of such shots would be a powerful symbol for our times. In the past we were too quick to let leavers slip from our collective thought (although we each held on to those dear to us). I suppose you could say as a nation we have always been in denial that emigration robs us of something. Now is the time to have a thoughtful conversation on leaving!

Leaving Dublin is now part of a bigger project called On Leaving.

How did you find participants for “Leaving Dublin”? Who got involved and why?

In February 2010 used my blog to invite people of all nationalities, who had decided to leave Ireland for economic reasons, to take part. I told them I wanted to make portraits that were “… monumental, to show those depicted in a true heroic spirit. For after all they are making a huge jump into the void of uncertainty and this needs to be commemorated…” From there I got my first 3 sitters. Generally people are known to me, a friend, or another sitter, some though responded to the work and contacted me to be included.

Why is emigration interesting to you?

My mother was one of five children and by the time she was seventeen all of her family had moved to England. She was left alone in Dublin, where she married my dad about 2 years later. Growing up there I had no family on my mothers side. This seemed normal to me, but I remember a sadness that my mother showed occasionally, especially around Christmas time. In the eighties things where very bad economically, so all of my own siblings left town. I was all of the nineties in Dublin without any of them.

My dear brother Ian came back to Dublin in 1999 and is still here. Around the time he returned things were changing in Ireland. Soon we arrived at a point where no one had to leave Ireland if they preferred to stay. My emotional response to this was a sense of happiness for the future.

When the crash came I was saddened to see all the progress being washed away, and things returning to the way they were were for hundreds of years. I realized what awaited families in the future. I knew all about the thwarting of family relationships caused by even the shortest of distances. I felt sorry for all of those who were yet to experience this loss. Then I realized that I myself had lost so much, but never even noticed. It was then I made up my mind to give a face to those about to depart, and to celebrate them as people not mere statistics.

When I began making this work I was sad, but I was encouraged by the attitude of my sitters and their wish to create a better reality for themselves. Some time into the process of making the work I became extremely angry, especially at the denial of this drain by our government and the branding of emigration as a lifestyle choice. My work taught me that emigration came about through a complex mix of desire, necessity and desperation. Today I occupy a place of resignation, acceptance of our situation, as it was in the past and as it will be in the future. We are a nation of travelers, that’s how it is. The world is a better place for the infusions provided by the Irish.

On Leaving is an ongoing project, could you tell us about the current phase?

Recently I have visited over 30 participants in their new cities, or I met with them when they returned to see family, or to settle once more at home. I’ve also been revisiting many of the original shot locations and photographed them depopulated, close to dawn. These new photographs will hang side by side with the original portraits.  

After I spend time with Solas Nua in Washington D.C. I will travel around the Americas to make more visitation shots for future exhibitions and a book.

On Leaving is part of a conversation about emigration and the effects of austerity on our communities. I hope the work will promote the serious critical debate the issues deserve.


You can find out more about David Monahan on his website. You can also keep up to date wit his photographic adventures on his blog. And you can even secure your copy of the On Leaving book through David's current crowd sourced funding campaign.

If you'd like to see the On Leaving exhibit in Washington D.C. consider donating to Solas Nua to help us make it happen! Visit our Support page for details.