The title, “My last day at Seventeen,” was first uttered by Eirn while I was taking her photograph in her parents’ back garden on the eve of her 18th birthday. Although Eirn argues her remark was more properly phrased, “it’s my last day as seventeen” the sentiment is the same: there is a time in everyone’s life where the freedom and promise of childhood are lost to the coming of age and experience. The process can be gradual or abrupt; it can begin at age 18, 12 or 40.
The photographs were made over a five year period in the town of Cobh, County Cork in Ireland. I came to Cobh at the invitation of the Sirius Arts Centre in the summer of 2009. Ireland had just begun its sharp decline from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. I spent my days trying to ingratiate myself with contractors to gain access to building sites that lay abandoned throughout the Irish countryside. I got nowhere.
As part of my residency, I spent two or three afternoons each week, with a small group of young people editing and designing a book of their photographs. After two weeks of getting turned away from construction sites, I asked these kids to show me their neighborhood. Kevin and Eirn, an inseparable couple at the time, took me to Russell Heights.
Russell Heights is a housing estate of uncertain vintage that sits on Spy Hill above Cork harbor. The neighborhood is closely knit: everyone seems to be someone’s cousin, former girlfriend, best friend or spouse. Little can happen there that isn’t seen, discussed, distorted beyond all reason and fiercely defended against disapprobation from the outside. Since I knew Kevin and Eirn, my camera and I were tolerated that first summer. Over the course of four summers with hundreds of photographs made, given away, discussed, remade and argued over, I earned a tenuous but quite touching sense of belonging.
My Last day at Seventeen looks at the bravado and adventure of childhood with an eye toward its fragility and inevitable loss. Some photographs were made spontaneously but most were fashioned collaboratively utilizing a chosen wardrobe, setting and circumstance. While the lives imagined in this narrative should not be confused with the actual individuals that walk the streets of Cobh, the photographs are faithful depictions of adolescent experience, the rhythm and patina of Russell Heights and the anxious countenance of Irish youth.