July has gotten a whole lot better since PhotoIreland began three years ago. Transforming Dublin into a photography mecca through its all-encompassing programme of exhibitions, book fairs and portfolio reviews, the festival provides the infrastructure needed to encourage photographic practices in Ireland, as well as some aesthetic nourishment. This year, the programme is loosely held together by a theme of ‘Migration’. We spoke to a cross-section of participating photographers about their work: Dinu Li, Jean Revilliard, Isabelle Pateer and David Monaghan, each of whom hail from a different European country (Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and Ireland, respectively) – we’ll be running one a day all this week.
Urban decay and abandoned houses, sitting as silent and desolate as the future they imply, are no stranger to Dublin’s consciousness: the emergence of ghost estates and so on have been well-chronicled. But despite some initial similarities, the Belgian town of Doel is no ordinary ghost town. It wasn’t designed for some upwardly mobile social group that had cash to throw around – and that never quite seemed to materialise. Doel is old. It is mentioned in medieval texts, has a 17th Century stone windmill (the oldest in Belgium) and was for a while inhabited by Rubens. But like the grains of sand in an hourglass, its inhabitants are slowly slipping away from it, pressurised into emigration not only by bleak economic prospects, but the expansion of the port of Antwerp – a monolithic and multinational industrial enterprise that proposes progress and expansion and global enterprise, but also the demolition of the entirety of this historic and culturally important village. Isabelle Pateer, a fine art photographer who grew up not so far away from the town, turned her lens to the sombre demise of the Doel, and will be presenting the resulting award-winning series Unsettled in the Copper House Gallery.
When did you first visit Doel, and what attracted you to it?
I was born just 20km away from the village of Doel, on the Dutch side of the border with Belgium, so was quite familiar with the area and I felt an interesting story with an international audience was unravelling nearby. Then I decided to start the series ‘Unsettled’ in 2007 – it’s a long-term and ongoing project about the consequences of industrial expansions and related nature recompensation plans on people and their surroundings. The project that points in an indirect way to the power of economy in our contemporary world, and its consequences.
The series has a tendency to focus on the youth of Doel…
Yes, one aspect of the series is the combination of portraits of young inhabitants with interior pictures, exterior pictures or landscapes of the area in transition. Seeing these people at the start of their lives in an environment that is basically at the end of its tether raises questions. You wonder what is happening, and also whether it is a real place or something staged. This is the point I want to make with the series – to raise questions, rather than giving any answers or a concrete explanation on the situation in this specific place.
Dublin has a very high emigration rate amongst young people at the moment. Is this also the case in Doel, or is there a tendency to stay and ‘protect’ the village?
The emigration stream in Doel is directed by an economical tendency, like everywhere in the world, but it’s slightly different here… Young people in many places leave their village voluntarily, but here they are forced to leave their village, because the area will be transformed into an industrial or nature compensation area. The inhabitants of Doel have fought to protect their living area for more than a decade now, and a lot of media coverage is helping them in spreading the word, but despite this, the place has already changed a lot. Politics and economic power will probably be stronger in the end.
You mentioned that nature recompensation schemes are also a part of the problem. The idea of an artificial natural landscape posing a threat to a historic village makes the situation even more complex, even a little ironic…
You’re completely right – the planned nature recompensation plans are giving a cynical character to the situation, but that’s reality. Economy creates progress, but at the same time it’s digging peoples graves, on different layers. The people of Doel have had to leave due to industrial expansions, but in the wider area, other people also have to disappear because nature recompenstation areas are planned to compensate the planned industry.
Are there any other photographers you looked towards while developing the concept for this series?
The concept of the series grew as I worked – I evaluate constantly, and like to talk with a lot of people about my work. I regularly participate in portfolio reviews, like the one PhotoIreland are running – they enable you to show your work to specialists and talk with them about it. But of course there are certain photographers I admire, and who visually inspired the series: Lise Sarfati, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, Alec Soth and Mitch Epstein, for example. But there are many other people (and not only photographers), situations and interviews that inspire me as regards to the content of my work along my way. I don’t like to narrow myself down to just the field of photography in my search for inspiration.
Unsettled is still ongoing, but what do you plan on doing with the images once the project is complete?
Unsettled will hopefully be finished by the end of this year, so I’m currently talking with publishers and graphic designers about turning it into a publication. The photo book is a medium in itself so it’s an exciting new way of approaching the images – it’s very challenging, but also very nice to talk to people who seem to be as enthusiastic as I am to get the publication out there!
Unsettled runs at The Copper House Gallery from June 28th – July 12th as part of the PhotoIreland Festival. The progress of the Unsettled project can be followed on www.isabellepateer.com/unsettled. PhotoIreland Festival runs from July 1-31, but individual exhibition dates vary, so check the website: www.photoireland.org