Portrait Of A Century: Photo exhibition captures the changing face of Ireland

As a new exhibition of 100 photographs that document Ireland's identity, nationhood and ethnicity over the past century opens in Armagh next week, Irish photographer Kim Haughton tells Gail Bell how she coaxed actors, boxers and former presidents to show their true self for the camera

Oscar-nominated Irish actress Ruth Negga photographed by Kim Haughton
Gail Bell

HER photo of horses outside an abandoned house became a defining image of the Republic’s economic collapse and now award-winning photographer Kim Haughton has trained her lens on Irish people for the latest body of work: ‘Portrait of a Century’.

A visual time capsule, the collection features 100 people – one born in each year since the foundation of the state – and quite literally, shows the changing face of Ireland.

Opening in Armagh’s Market Place theatre on March 12, some well-known northern faces are among those captured by Haughton’s scrutinising lens: actors Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea make the cut, as does the late economist, TK Whitaker (born in Rostrevor, Co Down), former Irish president Mary McAleese and Belfast boxer Michael Conlan.

They sit easily beside other notable names who have shaped Ireland in some way over the past 100 years, including Oscar-nominated Limerick actress Ruth Negga, who was born in Ethiopia.

Of former Love/Hate star Negga, the Dublin photographer – who completed an MA at London University of Arts in 2013 and was later named an ‘Irish photographer to watch’ by TIME magazine – says: “The Ruth Negga shoot was certainly the most stressful one. We had been trying to get her for many months and it ended up being the last shoot in the series. I flew to LA during the height of the awards season when she was in very high demand – she had just been nominated for an Academy Award [for her role in the 2016 film Loving].

“In LA, you just can’t waltz in and meet and photograph a movie star in a coffee shop or at a bar. I eventually found a hotel that had interesting detailing on the balcony and it all worked out in the end. She was charming and easy to work with – I’m constantly amazed at how quickly 20 minutes goes by.”

For Michael Conlan, the setting wasn’t quite so glamorous – Haughton met the boxer in a cold Belfast street near where he grew up.

“A lot of photographs of boxers are made in gyms with dry ice machines and very dramatic body lighting but I wasn’t interested in that kind of approach and wanted an outdoor, urban backdrop,” Haughton says.

“I knew he had the rosary beads tattoo on his neck and I felt bad asking him to remove his jacket, sweatshirt and T-shirt on a freezing December morning, but it was an important part of the picture because his tattoos are tied up with his identity.

“There were cars going by, beeping at him standing there on a cold corner with no top on, but he was waving at them and didn’t seem to mind the cold at all. If you look closely at the picture, though, you will see goosebumps on his skin.”

It took the former press photographer, who has travelled the world with her camera – more recently landing in New York on a three-year contract as an associate photographer at the United Nations – over two years, from 2015, to complete the massive project.

During that time she travelled all over Ireland, as well as to London, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to zoom in on selected sitters who she says she wanted to be “a kind of microcosm of Ireland”.

To those ends, everyone from famous actresses and sports stars to homeless people and children from marginalised communities are caught on camera; disparate individuals coming together as a stained-glass whole to celebrate the colourful new face of multicultural Ireland.

“I was also mindful of not engaging in stereotypes, so there is a female farmer and a male ballet dancer,” Haughton adds. “For the children and the teenagers, I looked at how Ireland was changing and becoming more diverse and I wanted those changes reflected in the faces of kids growing up in a very different place than other generations in the exhibition.

“For instance, there is a Muslim girl wearing her headscarf, a black girl in her Communion dress, a baby from Korea who was born to an Irish mother and a little girl born in Ethiopia and adopted into an Irish family”.

Seeking to reveal something more than skin deep in her photographs, Haughton would start a conversation “to get a sense of somebody’s character”, give minimal direction and then “wait until I see that crack, that glimpse into a self-aware, maybe even vulnerable interior”.

Only at that point, and not a second before, will she press the shutter.

Teenagers she found “very straightforward” and more likely to show their authentic selves than adults, but one of her favourites is a photograph of a young Eunice Adeleye (born 2007) from Lusk, Co Dublin, who had just made her First Communion.

“We were driving around and came across a newly cut wheat field,” Haughton recalls. “It was a beautiful, overcast day, with the sun trying hard to give off a soft, diffused light.

“It’s quite a complex photograph, I think, and it takes the notion of Irish culture and identity and turns it on its head. People don’t see images of a black girl with a quiet expression wearing a communion dress, standing in a wheat field and think of Ireland.

“So, you ask yourself, why not? And that’s a conversation that could go on for a long time.”

:: Portrait of a Century exhibition opens at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on March 12 and runs until May 5.

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